top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Nick Cave's rediscovery: How the 'imagination propels itself beyond the personal’

I don’t know Nick Cave personally, but sitting arms-length from him outside a Potts Point café in Sydney earlier this year, I felt he should recognise me.  Not from any misplaced sense of self-importance on my part.

Rather because the ‘alternative’ music of Australian band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is and continues to be such an influential part of my artistic life, and the creative lives of many others.  Such intimacy surely between musician and music-lover, between artist and art lover would not go unrecognised. 

Cave looking relaxed, sipping tea, emanated cool with his jet-blackened hair, slimline suit and unflappable demeanour.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds evolved from the post-punk The Birthday Party that disbanded in London in August 1983.  The Bad Seeds which performed its first live show at the Seaview Ballroom in Melbourne on 31 December 1983, (yes, I was there) featuring Cave’s definitive minimalist and poetic vocals, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and guitarist Hugo Race (in Blixa Bargeld's temporary absence) has included international musicians and various influences throughout its career.

The Birthday Party, 1983

In 1985, the band moved to Germany to record their second album, 'The Firstborn is Dead', an album heavily influenced by the gothic Americana of the American South and blues music.  And the albums kept coming, transitioning from piano driven ballads with both sorrowful and longing tones to harder rock sounds – in no small way, mirroring the emotional emergence of the band’s members from their self-confessed drug afflicted haze.

On 4 October 2019, the Bad Seeds released their 17th album, 'Ghosteen' – the band's first since 'Abattoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus' (2004) - and the final part of a trilogy of albums that includes 'Push the Sky Away' (2013) and 'Skeleton Tree' (2016).

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 'Ghosteen' 2019

Writing in Rolling Stone, Kory Grow credits ‘the main Bad Seed’ with creating “one of the most moving albums of his career” as Cave “continues to parse the loss of his teenage son”.

It’s a rare thing to see an artist’s worldview change overnight.  For decades, Nick Cave has been goth rock’s hyperliterate poet laureate, famous for his intricately molded stories about rogues and “badlanders” all in the throes of anguish.  (He has also always written beautiful love songs.)  

But where writing about death and despair once seemed like a lark - see “Stagger Lee', ‘John Finn’s Wife', 'Murder Ballads' - the freak death of his 15 year-old son Arthur four years ago rightfully shook him to his core.  His last album, 2016’s Skeleton Tree, was recorded after Arthur’s death but mostly written before it.  His latest, however, seems like a broader, and altogether more stunning reaction to losing his son, says Grow.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 2019

Cave has split the album, which bears the self-explanatory title Ghosteen, into two acts.  “The songs on the first album are the children”, Cave says. “The songs on the second album are their parents. Ghosteen is a migrating spirit.”

In essence, it is a holistic portrait of a father grieving, and while the songs are often heartbreaking — he lingers on and repeats phrases like “It’s a long way to find peace of mind” on the closing track “Hollywood” on the parents’ half — there is also a strange hope within the song.

'Ghosteen' which opens the parents’ part of the record, begins with the words, “The world is beautiful”.  And there’s also a certain peace in hearing Cave sing, “Everybody’s losing someone,” even if it just means he’s coming to terms with his own grief.  If anything, the real concept behind Ghosteen is that Nick Cave is not broken.  He has merely changed.  He may feel shattered, but he is still writing and finding meaning in his music.

Ghosteen, Grow concludes, is a masterpiece of melancholy. You mourn right along with him and hope he finds solace.

Nick Cave

As a visual artist Ghosteen’s album cover initially caught my eye.  The artwork no doubt portrays Caves life shifts, personal pains and hopes for the future.  The idealised, fairy tale imagery seems far removed from Cave's oft-dark genre.  But peering closer, dissembling the montage of wild animals, dreamlike fields and exotic sunlit plantings - composed by Cave himself - reveals a landscape emblematic of the many influences that make up this artists work to where he stands - still standing - today.

In his very first post on The Red Hand Files – the website Cave uses to receive and respond to fan letters – he speaks of rebuilding his relationship with song writing, which had been damaged while enduring the death of his son.  He wrote, “I found with some practice the imagination could propel itself beyond the personal into a state of wonder.  In doing so, the colour came back to things with a renewed intensity and the world seemed clear and bright and new.  It is in that state of wonder that Ghosteen exists.”

Through these lyrical stories, Cave is finding he says his way to peace.  Slipping between realms of fantasy and reality as a means to accept death, his past and his future. Bringing a lifetime of experiences and ever-shifting influences to form.

In this way, Cave connects with me.  But when I look up from my coffee, he is gone.

Photo: Matthew Thorne, Rolling Stone

Main Photo: Nick Cave, Independent


Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

bottom of page