Few artists claim the job title as deeply as Nick Cave. His career ticks many boxes of an art enthusiast’s checklist. On top of his day job as a singer and songwriter with his band, The Bad Seeds, Cave has moonlighted as an author, screenwriter, composer and even, actor following his years in the seminal post-punk band, The Birthday Party. Warren Ellis, like Cave, was born in Victoria, Australia before moving to Melbourne for university. Through his young career as a musician and composer, Ellis added additional instrumental arrows to his quiver, including piano, accordion, guitar, flute, mandolin and viola. In 1992, he formed the instrumental rock band, The Dirty Three. After generating a name for himself, Ellis was invited to play with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on their 1994 album Let Love In. His official membership as a Bad Seed was formalized on the band’s 1995 album Murder Ballads. A collaboration was sparked that has not just remained but has strengthened to this day. It’s not a stretch to imagine that an unweaving of one from the other seems unlikely, not just as musical partners but as the best of friends. In an interview with Farout Magazine last September, Cave stated “In the end, I think Warren and I understand that the longevity of a collaboration depends to a certain extent on the conservation of friendship – friendships need care and constant maintenance – and so we exist as friends beyond the work as well. We go about our work – sometimes together, sometimes apart – and we wish each other happiness, and when one of us is in trouble, the other comes a-running, as the song goes.”
Tragic inspiration from the accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015 has coloured not just his last two albums – Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen but the stunning 2016 documentary, One More Time With Feeling. Most recently, Nick Cave recorded his live album, Idiot Prayer in the COVID-emptied Alexandra Palace in London.
Not a pair to let a global pandemic keep them down, Cave and Ellis surprised fans by releasing a new album, Carnage, on Feb. 25 (with physical copies available in May). The eight tracks, recorded over a handful of weeks, highlights the partnership’s first release as a bona fide duo. Cave describes Carnage as “a brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe.” While Ellis calls the album “an accelerated process of intense creativity,” adding that “the eight songs were there in one form or another within the first two and a half days and then it was, ‘let’s just make a record!’ There was nothing too premeditated about it,” which seems an apt description of the improvisational nature of the twosome’s working relationship.
Carnage opens with Cave singing “There are some people trying to find out who, there are some people trying to find out why” from Hand of God. The line is open to interpretation – is the Hand of God what the world has been witnessing over the last year? That answer, far fetched as it may be, isn’t answered by the ensuing vignettes Cave describes. The rest of this song, with a minimal kick beat, strings and multiple voices builds under Cave. Old Time begins with a droning bass backbone, piano chords and snare shuffle accompanying Cave’s cinematic lyrics before giving way to Ellis’ strolling violin and electric guitar. Next is the title track, which feels like a child’s recollection merged with an adult’s fever dream, centred and concluded by a gorgeous chorus. What the love Cave is singing about could be that shared with a lover, or with a child. Carnage is a stunning piece that gives way to a hallucinatory spoken word composition, White Elephant. The angry piece mixes images of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests with Trumpian violence before giving way to a hymnal choir. Next is the lamenting, ethereal Albuquerque, featuring haunting piano and strings. Again, how much Cave is singing directly about these pandemic times is unclear. Certainly, Albuquerque lamenting that ‘we won’t get to anywhere, anytime this year’ feels precisely apropos. Lavender Fields opens with Ellis’ pastoral strings before Cave reads the temperature of us all proclaiming “I plough through this furious world of which I’m truly over.” The song ends with the lyrics “We don’t ask who, we don’t ask why there is a kingdom in the sky” to bring us back to the bigger questions. Shattered Ground was recorded in a single take, but Ellis states that the song didn’t reveal itself until late in the mixing of Carnage. The song is synth pads underlying a shattered Cave singing of love lost. Cave’s keening to fade the song out makes it the most heartbreaking on this deeply emotional album. Carnage closes with Balcony Man, a very Nick Cave song that blends a racing run of mental images within a rising narrative. It’s painfully positive in its chorus amid swirling sadness as Ellis shrouds his partner in layer after layer of piano, foot stomps and strings until the song cuts out to give the singer his final words, “What doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.” Again, Cave and Ellis leave the interpretation of the mood and the words to the listeners.
Carnage is a profoundly stirring album, as is the norm. Whether the emotion within contains more than just threads of Cave’s lingering grief or if the touchpoint for these eight songs is just to chime a common global theme is impossible to say. It has many notes of sadness, anger and gloom but it is undeniably full of hope and calm and its beauty doesn’t all dwell in its dark side. The saddest aspect of Carnage may be Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’ inability to recreate it on stage in front of an adoring audience.