Nick Cave’s ‘Ghosteen’ (2019): Palingenesis, musical angelology, and the good seeds of mustard

In honorem María Liliana Herrera Alzate (1960-2019)

I used to appreciate Nick Cave’s music, but when I first listened to his last album, Ghosteen (2019), I immediately became a worshipping fan, a Caveman of sorts. Ghosteen is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever come across. Important detail: it’s the first album released by Cave after the tragic death of his son Arthur, who fell off a cliff in 2015. At the time, Cave was almost done with his second to last album, Skelen Tree (2016). Ghosteen could be said to be a mourning record. A sad one (even though sadness may not be said to be a distinguishing trait of Ghosteen amidst Cave’s entire discography), and profoundly beautiful as well (as sadness and beauty often go hand in hand).

On a deep psychological level, sadness is not to be opposed to joy and happiness (and I’m sure Nick Cave understands such paradoxical insight). As Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote: “When we have exhausted the pretexts which incite us to gaiety or melancholy, we come to the point of experiencing either one in a pure state: which is how we join the mad…” (All Gall is Divided) A pure sentiment, if any, is always a hybrid, mixed one, hence divine madness. In fact, Ghosteen is sad and gay, sorrowful and blissful, dark and radiant  all at once. As a fan-listener (Jonah) puts it:

Many people have remarked that Ghosteen is a sad album, but I don’t think it is at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more uplifting, jubilant record before. When I listened to it the first time alone, I was brought to tears. And when I listened to it again with my friend, both of us sitting in the car in complete silence, we both felt moved by its brightness and gentle optimism. Why do you think people are reacting so differently to it? I almost feel like I’ve misinterpreted it. (The Red Hand Files #73, November 2019)

Even if I acknowledge the sadness of it, I cannot but agree with Jonah from Salt Lake City that it’s ultimately an uplifting, jubilant record. I too have been brought to bitter-sweet tears  while listening to it. I’ve learned to sing all the lyrics by heart. The auscultation of Ghosteen is an altogether bewildering experience. And also a haunting one. A good haunting, though: “Ghosteen” is actually an angel, a messenger, a vessel or conveyor between the human and the divine, and vice-versa. No matter how much it dwells on minor, lower scales, it turns out to be an upward spiral in the bigger picture. Nick Cave describes it thus:

We wanted each song to feel as if it were climbing toward an exultant and euphoric state, for the record to be a vessel that transported the listener far away from the world and its troubles, and that it lived in the jubilant and hopeful beyond.
If there is sadness in Ghosteen, perhaps it is the recognition that we are often blind to the splendour of the world and indifferent to its attendant wonder. Perhaps the sadness is the recognition that the world is indeed beautiful, that it spins within the palm of our own hands and its beauty is available to all, if only we had eyes to see. (The Red Hand Files #73, November 2019)

So yes, despite all mourning and grief, it is indeed an uplifting, radiant, angelic music record. I have the impression that Arthur Cave was present at each and single moment of its composition and recording. I would go beyond and say that Ghosteen is actually Arthur himself in the (sublimed, disembodied) form of music. After listening to Ghosteen, I regard Nick Cave as a kind of music-making, modern-day Abraham, as depicted by Kierkegaard. The ‘Knight of Faith’, as the Dannish philosopher characterizes Abraham, does not lose his Isaac after all:

“Would it not be best to remain standing at faith and for him who stands to see to it that he does not fall, for the movement of faith must continually be made by virtue of the absurd, but yet in such a way, please note, that one does not lose the finite but gains it whole and intact.” (Fear and Trembling).

To put it in other words:

“Repetition is possible. Job has his world restored; Abraham gets Isaac back. Their wounds are healed. […] Paradoxically, they gain repetition while their hearts are set on something else. Job does not demand or work to get his world restored: he asks why it has been taken, he demands reasons. Abraham does not demand or set out to get Isaac back: he sets out to give Isaac up. Both are beneficiaries of repetition, but neither makes the attainment of repetition his explicit project.” (Edward F. Mooney, “Repetition: getting the world back”, in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard)

Ghosteen helped me get through a difficult period of my life, as the listening of it coincided with the passing away of a great friend of mine, one who lived far from me, in a foreign country, in such a way that I wasn’t able to be there for her funeral. Finally, Ghosteen is not just a mourning record, it’s also a devotional one: musical angelology, as I like to think of it. Arthur is proud of his father, wherever he is, and he sings along. The world is Cave’s… (and I thank you, dear Nick, for this musical gift).

liliana-herrera-portada
María Liliana Herrera Alzate (1960-2019)

Rodericvs Ignis Fatvvs
Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020

Pearls of wisdom and beauty by Nick Cave
(from the Ghosteen album songs):

 

“Peace will come in time / A time will come for us.” (‘Spinning song’)

*

“Everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something / And we are all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” (‘White horses’)

*

“This world is plain to see / It don’t mean we can’t believe.” (‘White horses’)

*

“And a man called Jesus, he promised he would leave us with a word that would light up the night, oh the night, but the stars hang from threads and blink off one by one and it isn’t any fun no it isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be with a man mad with grief and on each side a thief and everybody hanging from a tree, from a tree, and everybody hanging from a tree.” (‘Sun Forest’)

*

“There is nothing more valuable than beauty, they say, there is nothing more valuable than love and I lie amongst the leaves and the burning trees and the fields of smoke and the black butterflies and the screaming horses and your bright green eyes so beautiful, your bright green eyes, so beautiful.” (‘Sun Forest’)

*

“And if we rise, my love / Before the daylight comes / A thousand galleon ships would sail / Ghostly around the morning sun / For we are not alone it seems / So many riders in the sky / The winds of longing in their sails / Searching for the other side.” (‘Galleon ship’)

*

“This world is beautiful / Held within its stars / I keep it in my heart / The stars are your eyes / I loved them right from the start / A world so beautiful / And I keep it / In my heart.” (‘Ghosteen’)

*

“There goes the moonlit man / Got a suitcase in his hand / He’s moving on down the road / Things tend to fall apart / Starting with his heart.” (‘Ghosteen’)

*

“I’m speaking about love now / How the lights of love go down / You’re in the back room washing his clothes / Love’s like that you know / It’s like a tidal flow / And the past with its fierce undertow / Won’t ever let us go / Won’t ever let you go.” (‘Ghosteen’)

*

“If I could move the night I would / And I would turn the world around if I could / There is nothing wrong with loving something / You can’t hold in your hand.” (‘Ghosteen’)

*

“Jesus lying in his mother’s arms / Is a photon released from a dying star / We move through the forest at night / The sky is full of momentary light / Everything we need is just too far / We are photons released from a dying star / We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar / And everything is as distant as the stars / I am here and you are where you are.” (‘Ghosteen’)

*

“We have lived a long time here in the forest / We lie beneath the heaps of leaves / We are partial to this partial light / We cannot sleep and fear our dreams / There is no order here, nothing can be planned / We are fireflies trapped in a little boy’s hand / And everything is as distant as the stars / I am here and you are where you are.” (‘Fireflies’)

*

“We lie among our atoms and I speak to you of things / And hope sometimes that maybe you will understand / There is no order here and there is no middle ground / Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned / A star is just the memory of a star / We are fireflies pulsing dimly in the dark / We are here and you are where you are.” (‘Fireflies’)

*

Kisa had a baby but the baby died
Goes to the villagers says my baby’s sick
Villagers shake their heads and say to her
Better bury your baby in the forest quick

It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind

Kisa went to the mountain and asked the Buddha
My baby’s sick! Buddha said, don’t cry
Go to each house and collect a mustard seed
But only from a house where no one’s died

Kisa went to each house in the village
My baby’s getting sicker, poor Kisa cried
But Kisa never collected one mustard seed
Because in every house someone had died

Kisa sat down in the old village square
She hugged her baby and  cried and cried
She said everybody is always losing somebody
Then walked into the forest and buried her child

Everybody’s losing someone
Everybody’s losing someone
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
It’s a long way to find peace of mind, peace of mind
And I’m just waiting now for my time to come
And I’m just waiting now for peace to come
For peace to come.

(‘Hollywood’)

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