By Phil Scarisbrick
Amidst the darkness of death and the redemptive qualities of love, Nick Cave finds himself on a journey with an old friend – through the carnage of 2020 and beyond
Religious imagery has always been a hallmark of Nick Cave’s work, but rather than being an ecclesiastical display of faith, it has always felt more like a conduit to examine human behaviour and interaction. When asked by a fan on his Red Right Hand blog about whether God exists, he said, ‘My life is dominated by the notion of God, whether it is his presence or his absence.’ So when he sat down with long-time collaborator, Warren Ellis, to compose an album during the most universally life-altering period for decades, it was inevitable that the shadow of omnipotence, whether real or not, was going to linger over it.
‘There are people trying to find out who / There are people trying to find out why / There are some people who aren’t trying to find anything but that kingdom in the sky.’ The sermonic delivery that opens the album on Hand of God gives way to a pulsing beat that drives like a frightened child trying to escape from danger, focussed on their escape, while the chaos ensues around them. A broken, distorted falsetto chants the titular ‘Hand of God’ intermittently to add to the sense of jeopardy. The whole song feels like a perilous adrenaline rush – caught adrift in a raging torrent, as Cave insists you ‘Let the river cast its spell’.
The imagery of the following track, Old Time, is no more comforting, as we hear that ‘Everyone’s dreams have died’. A psychotic sounding guitar punctuates Cave’s vocal with vociferous menace, adding to the overall sense that things aren’t quite right. There is no colour here. It is a monochrome wasteland of desperation, until the closing lines offer hope as our narrator reflects on the ‘the old times’.
The title track, though, feels softer, and more introspective than the opening pair. Once again, Cave is being ruefully reflective. Looking back on past events with rose-tinted glasses, appreciating them for the beauty they possessed, even if you may have missed it at the time. Given what we know about when this record was composed, it is surely something we can all empathise with.
White Elephant is a real highlight, as Cave’s trademark baritone expresses outright anger. It seemingly references last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the reactions to them – as well as other dark iconography. That is until the whole song takes off like it has been freed from the shackles, and the light has come pouring in. A group vocal exclaims, ‘A time is coming, a time is nigh / For the kingdom in the sky’. Another clear theological nod, hoping for something better, praying for something better, and as the multitude of voices delivering the message personifies, he is not alone.
The subtle hints to the world being shut down continue on Albuquerque. ‘We won’t get to anywhere darling, anytime this year,’ may feel pointed, but it has a far broader applicability than the obvious. It drives home the importance of looking beyond our current ills, as heavy as they feel, as life will always throw gravel in our faces. It will also allow you to bask in the moonlight and fall in love with the world around you, or another person. For all the darkness on the record, ultimately, it a collection about redemption, and the redemptive qualities of love.
The final lines of closer, Balcony Man, tell us ‘The morning is amazing and so are you / You are languid and lovely and lazy / And what doesn’t kill you makes you crazier.’ A deprecating act of affection to close out an album that has pondered apocalyptic lows, and examined the darkness that can envelope us all.
There are few songwriting partnerships as potent as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. They’re intertwined spirits – creating the perfect foil for each other’s art. When Cave needs to go dark, Ellis’ soundscape descends into an icy tundra. When he softens, and lets the love seep in, Ellis throws open the curtains to flood the room with light. And as Cave continues his search for answers to the big questions, he has the perfect companion to take that journey with.
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