Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: Carnage review – vivid visions of apocalypse and absolution

Alexis Petridis
·4-min read

Next month sees the British publication of Mark Mordue’s book Boy on Fire: The Young Nick Cave. It’s a fascinating read, both as an occult history of Australian punk – it’s hard not to like the sound of the Filth, a Sydney quartet whose audition for a major label involved their lead singer repeatedly head-butting a door – and a kind of rake’s progress. It details how a delightful-sounding boy from the country town of Warracknabeal gradually transformed into the horror that turned up in early 80s London fronting the Birthday Party, a band whose aura of violence and malevolence was so pervasive that, says one associate, even the British music press at first gave them a wide berth in the belief they were genuinely evil. Furthermore, the book’s protagonist, or someone who sounds remarkably like him, appears to turn up on the title track of Cave’s latest album, a stately drift of organ, strings and tremolo-heavy guitar topped off with lyrics that sound like tangled memories, first evoking a rural childhood – “a barefoot child” depicted watching the family’s chickens being dispatched – then a bookish, driven adolescence: “Sitting on a balcony reading Flannery O’Connor, with a pencil and a plan.”

And the existence of Boy on Fire also says something about Cave’s current status: it is hard to imagine many of his peers warranting a painstakingly researched 370-page volume that stops before they’ve made any of the records on which their reputation rests. At 63, Cave’s artistic standing only seems to be growing: the Bad Seeds somehow graduated to playing arenas on the back of 2016’s harrowing Skeleton Tree, their least commercial-sounding album in decades; its follow-up Ghosteen, an extraordinary examination of loss, grief and hope, was among the best-reviewed albums of 2019.

Credited to Cave and chief musical foil Warren Ellis alone (the pandemic presumably preventing the reconvening of the Bad Seeds), Carnage is less grand than its predecessor – half an hour shorter, devoid of the lengthy epics that dominated its second half – but it follows Ghosteen’s lead musically. Frequently beat-free, it is based around Ellis’s electronics, loops and string arrangements. In its switches between songs with something like a standard verse-chorus structure and more abstract, serpentine material – songs that move, as the title track puts it, “like a raincloud that keeps circling overhead” – you hear the push and pull between the finely crafted structure of Cave’s writing and Ellis’s more freeform approach. But if Ghosteen was an album audibly born out of personal tragedy, Carnage feels more rooted in current events: “When everything is ordinary until it’s not,” as Cave sings on closer Balcony Man.

As a writer, Cave has always given good apocalypse, and, perhaps understandably given the last 12 months, so it is here. Mysterious horned figures, a biblical sun and a trembling Earth lurk amid Old Times’ dive-bombing electronic noise, Suicide-ish synth bassline and Bo Diddley rhythm, while White Elephant offers a very 2020 take on lurid end-times fantasy: statues topple, their necks knelt on, the president calls in the army, violent insults are hurled (“if you ever think of coming around here, I’ll shoot you in the fucking face”), everything happens beneath “a great grey cloud of wrath”. Then it resolves into a beautiful, ragged chorus that carries a distinct hint of late-60s Rolling Stones and faint hope of absolution in its lyrics: “There is a kingdom in the sky,” Cave offers, a phrase that crops up more than once on the album, delivered with various degrees of conviction.

At other points, Carnage’s view of 2020 is smaller in scale and more prosaic. There are a lot of lovely melodies on the album, but most straightforwardly beautiful song might be Albuquerque, a fabulous evocation of melancholy lockdown yearning that finds a solution in making the most of the human contact you’re permitted: “We won’t get to anywhere anytime this year, unless I dream you there … Unless you take me there.”

Related: Nick Cave's inspiration: pictures and notes from his archive

If it doesn’t feel quite as remarkable as Ghosteen, that tells you more about the previous album than the quality of Carnage: Cave and Ellis’s musical approach is still vividly alive, the dense, constantly shifting sound complementing the richness of Cave’s writing now. At 63, an age when many artists have returned to their past in the hope of rekindling former glories or sparking nostalgia, he feels a very long way away from the figure in Boy on Fire or indeed the horror that fronted the Birthday Party and the early Bad Seeds, neither of whom, you suspect, would have had much truck with Carnage’s themes of love and redemption: a softer view of the world, it’s worth noting, that’s done nothing to blunt the potency of what he does.

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