Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – Carnage
Released February 25th, 2021 on Goliath Records
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have been doing this thing since 1997, when Ellis joined the Bad Seeds just in time to do The Boatman’s Call, an album that contains among other songs my wedding song, “Into My Arms.” They’ve made music with the rest of the Bad Seeds, together as Grinderman (where Cave attempts heroically to play guitar, with great post-punk success), and as a duo that have done a number of soundtracks, among them the haunting score to the 2009 grimcore adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This latest collaboration album is allegedly categorized under the same label as the latter; attributed to Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, this is the first non-soundtrack album for them. This is an interesting choice, especially considering the haunting three-album direction that the Bad Seeds have taken. These albums – Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree, and Ghosteen – have blurred and erased the heavy, noise-racket gothic rock that the band had been trading in since 1983 in favour of the sound of an ethereal Cave delivering emotionally murderous lines over a chamber orchestration that seemed to move and groan along with its frontman. This is somewhat similar to the sound being traded in on Carnage, and the effect seems to mark a line in the sand. Past this point of musical deconstruction, it’s no longer the Bad Seeds; it’s that crafted soundtrack duo. Cave brings his literary talents and his master goth voice to deliver voices and characters and settings; Ellis spins loops and effects to breathe necromantic life into them. The effect is similar in a sense to the last three Bad Seeds records, but there are also aspects of the early goth work from the early days when Cave still fronted the Birthday Party. “Old Times”, for example, features a bass line seemingly lifted whole and breathing from a prime Suicide track. There’s also a whiff of the road (perhaps The Road), with many of Cave’s viewpoints in motion. This is true of “Old Times” as well, with its talk of motels and motel sex; “Carnage” draws upon the singer’s youth, beginning with “I always seem to be saying goodbye / And rolling through the mountains like a train / My uncle’s at the chopping block turning chickens into fountains / I’m a barefoot child watching in the rain.” “Albuquerque” seems to address the stasis of life in the pandemic, saying “And we won’t get to Amsterdam / Or that lake in Africa, darling / And we won’t get to anywhere / Anytime this year, darling.”; “Lavender Fields”, meanwhile, talks about how “I’m travelling appallingly alone on a singular road / Into the lavender fields that reach high beyond the sky.” “White Elephant”, meanwhile, draws on the political upheaval of the last few years to make pointed barbs with the lines “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 he kicks it into the sea.” There is a restlessness and a tense undercurrent of madness running through these songs, accentuated and complemented by Ellis’ instrumentation choices.
Is this the new direction for the Cave/Ellis combo? If so, what direction will the Bad Seeds head in next? As always, Nick Cave remains a mystery, shrouded in crow’s feathers and ready to burst forth into bloody violence at any moment. As far as soundtracks for this disturbing new world, there are few more fitting.