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Nick Cave and Warren Ellis review: creating beauty out of ‘Carnage’

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Carnage is a refreshing return to form for Nick Cave and Bad Seed Warren Ellis. After 2019’s Ghosteen, a powerful yet occasionally repetitive album which received the classic mixed reception that only true fans provide, the future direction of Cave’s sound was uncertain. 

But now, in Carnage, Cave and Ellis have found a place where what can sometimes sound like sonic baggage and ramblings feels not only fresh but honed to a very surefooted and sombre sound. 

Opening with the darkness of ‘Hand of God’ and ‘Old Time’, Carnage initially gives the listener a kick of haunting brutalism reminiscent of Murder Ballads. ‘Old Time’ combines an industrial and harsh backing rhythm with subtle bass and encroaching orchestra, creating feelings of confusion. But this picture is dispelled as quickly as it is created, moving onto track three it is turned into one of dark contemplation with the eponymous ‘Carnage’, perhaps the best song on the album. 

‘Carnage’ recalls the melodic opening tracks of Ghosteen with a reverberating backing rhythm and subtle guitar, all overlaid with Cave’s earnest and emotive voice. It’s the backing vocals on the chorus which then pile on the emotion and gravitas, marking this song out in particular with ‘White Elephant’ as anthemic and powerful tracks. “And it’s only love with a little bit of rain/And I hope to see you again.” The simplicity is profound. Nothing is left wanting in these songs, all is given to us. 

As an album which was created during lockdown it feels mature and solicitous. Unlike some of his more obviously experimental or conceptual works, Carnage isn’t grasping at any loose ideas or sounds – it is perfect. 

In Carnage, a multiplicity of sounds and ideas have collided to form perfectly sculpted songs, each well-constructed and subtly reminiscent of Cave’s previous works. The violent lyrics, peaceful synths, chilling orchestral tones, and sonic edginess that have been played around with by the Bad Seeds for some decades are epitomised in Carnage

The sounds used, and the topics written about, have allowed Cave et al to make music reminiscent of intense fever dreams, nightmares, and occasionally, harmonious solitude 

The tone of Carnage isn’t fixed – the darkness comes into full force, seemingly climaxing in ‘White Elephant’ where the classic violence of Cave is evident: “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face”. The song even harkens back to the summer of 2020: “A protester kneels on the neck of a statue/The statue says ‘I can’t breathe,’/ The protester says ‘Now you know how it feels’/And kicks it into the sea.”

The album then descends into a dreamy spiritual peace, induced by synth and orchestral tones notable in ‘Albuquerque’ and ‘Lavender Fields’. But Carnage is still classic Cave, still mixing in sadness and darkness. This is epitomised best in the final track, ‘Balcony Man’: “I’m a two hundred pound bag of blood and bone/Leaking on your favourite chair.”

It is testament to Cave’s musical ability and that of Ellis that their sounds are not only adaptable but as many have pointed out, perfectly suited to each other. Carnage is a Bad Seeds album in all but name and the immense acclaim it is receiving is making fans anxious for the rescheduled tour.   

The range of songs in Carnage doesn’t evoke simple feelings. The album cannot be pinned down exactly in tone. The sounds used, and the topics written about have allowed Cave et al to make music reminiscent of intense fever dreams, nightmares, and occasionally, harmonious solitude. 

Perhaps most miraculous about this album is the appreciation it gives the listener for Cave’s music. Ghosteen takes on a completely different place after hearing this work and the glimpses into Cave’s soul that each one of his works grants the listener in piecemeal are wonderous. Described by Cave as “brutal and beautiful”, few other words are needed for this album, it speaks for itself in a frankness few other artists can conjure. 

It is possibly the culmination of so many years of Cave and the Bad Seeds’ evolution which makes this album so pleasing. Carnage feels like a logical sonic next step from the sounds of Ghosteen and 2016’s Skeleton Tree. It is subtle, exuding a quiet yet occasionally damning electric darkness that has steadily developed in Cave’s works. The mix of Ghosteen‘s fluidity and the Grinderman grit not only adds more texture to Carnage but makes the re-discovery of past works deeply meaningful. If you are a fan of Cave this album will not disappoint and if you are new to him, this album is a great introduction. 

Carnage, then, is the perfect Nick Cave album. It sounds and feels like pure Cave. In blending such a range of sounds, vocals, and experimentation that one is never quite sure where they stand when listening to it, initially. It takes time to appreciate this album and that is where the beauty lies in Cave’s music. Carnage is no different. 

Recommended Listening: ‘White Elephant’

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