NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS, “GHOSTEEN” (GHOSTEEN/BAD SEED)
“I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing, I’m flying, look at me now,” Nick Cave sang six years ago on the pivotal “Jubilee Street.” The six-minute track planted the seeds of the fully realized 68-minute song cycle that is “Ghosteen.”
Since the feral fury and dark humor of the Grinderman era (circa 2007-10), Cave has done a little transforming himself. With “Push the Sky Away” (2013), Cave started recording music that somehow felt different, more open, consoling. The death of his 15-year-old son Arthur shadowed the release of “Skeleton Tree” (2016), and “Ghosteen” bears the full weight of that loss.
Though billed as collaboration with his magnificent long-running band, the Bad Seeds, Cave turns “Ghosteen” into a hushed, intimate work. There’s an industrial rattle at the outset of “Waiting for You” and barely-there percussion on “Leviathan,” a rumbling bass in “Hollywood,” but otherwise the arrangements are focused on floating keyboards and electronic textures. The album tells a two-part tale – an eight-song batch of “children” and a three-track set of “parents,” a before and after cycle of grief, mourning, acceptance and redemption.
At a distance, the album can feel like an ambient mood piece with some pretty moments rising from the mist. Listen closely, however, and something changes. The album becomes a meditation on pain and wonder, an apparent duality that Cave’s narrator turns into an acceptance of what it means to live.
The album’s premise is as old as humanity itself: Someone you love has died suddenly, inexplicably, and love is lost, then what? Cosmic visions of horses with their manes on fire, Jesus in Mary’s arms and ships in the sky merge with small moments: the view from a hotel room window, a couple in a parked car, someone sitting at a kitchen table listening to the radio.
There’s plenty of biblical imagery, but this is not Cave in fiery preacher mode. The unsettled music fits his interior, 3 a.m. vocals, which ranges from an exhausted near-whisper to a yearning falsetto. Background voices — moans, murmurs, sighs — emerge and recede as if from a dream.
The heartbreak of the “parent” songs would be difficult to bear even without knowledge of Cave’s personal tragedy. But this isn’t about self-pity. Instead, the singer’s retelling of an old Buddhist tale of a mother’s suffering in “Hollywood” becomes a lifeline, an acknowledgment that heartbreak not only breaks people, but can also be a source of strength, a unifying force.
In losing love, Cave also rekindles it in songs such as “Waiting for You,” “Night Raid” and the epic “Leviathan,” all ostensibly directed at his grieving wife. In the end, his quiet compassion speaks loudest of all. He universalizes that impulse in the staggering “Sun Forest” and the shimmering “Ghosteen Speaks,” an echo of “Jubilee Street”: “I am beside you. Look for me.”
(3.5 stars out of 4)
LANA DEL REY, “NFR” (INTERSCOPE)
“I’m your man,” Lana Del Rey asserts on the expansive “Mariners Apartment Complex.” Brimming with gender-bending confidence, Del Rey’s once-needy and desperate heroines are very much in charge on “NFR.” The album wants it all by conflating the singer’s vision of Laurel Canyon pop from yesteryear, relationships with men struggling to grow up and the apocalypse. Her grand repurposing of 1970s songcraft embraces expansive orchestration with psychedelic touches and layered vocals. Melodies inevitably appear from inside the opiated haze of instrumentation and the sometimes archly clever wordplay. Things inevitably drift, but beneath the surface in the best songs there is a toughness and a newfound resilience. The final track, “Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have,” reveals the narrator’s determination to find something meaningful amid the decadence of “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to Disappear” and the end-of-the-world images packed into “The Greatest.”
THE HIGHWOMEN, “THE HIGHWOMEN” (ELEKTRA)
In between obligations to their solo careers as four of new Nashville’s more accomplished singer-performer-songwriters, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires made time to put together this feminist response to the Highwaymen country supergroup of the 1980s (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson). The “Highwomen” title track doubles as a mission statement: It tells the tales of an immigrant, a colonial healer, a freedom rider and a preacher who paid a steep cost to advance women’s place in society. The subtext for this project is the lack of representation of women artists on country music radio and at country music festivals, a corollary of sorts to the #MeToo movement. The songs take a multifaceted view of motherhood and the notion of working women who are expected to do it all, particularly in “My Name Can’t be Mama.” The message of inclusion extends to anyone who has been barred from the industry’s men’s club, including members of the LGBTQ community and all people of color. It’s a radical message by Nashville standards, but it’s presented in rather locked down fashion by producer Dave Cobb, who frames everything as a standard ballad or honky-tonk number. Perhaps taking the safe course was a way of enticing (or daring) conservative country programmers to play the album. Indeed, the voices and the hooks can’t easily be denied, and Shires injects some playful sassiness on “Don’t Call Me.” But the potential for what could’ve been a harder-hitting roadhouse-style album largely goes unrealized. Maybe next time.
KILLS BIRDS, “KILLS BIRDS” (KRO)
This fledgling Los Angeles quartet led by Bosnian-born singer Nina Ljeti doesn’t waste any time on its combustible 26-minute debut album. Ljeti turns syllables into punches on the opening “Worthy Girl,” in which she struggles with self-worth over a guitar-drums bonfire. The hyperventilating “Jesus Did” only occasionally comes up for air as Ljeti’s vocals escalate from a low-key rustle to a hellhound-on-my-trail scream and then back again. The dynamic arrangements sometimes reduce the songs to a lone bass line or brief moment of silence, only to come hurtling back with renewed venom. Guitarist Jacob Loeb, bassist Fielder Thomas and drummer Bosh Rothman play like their hair’s collectively on fire, a match for Ljeti’s volatility, encapsulated by the anthemic “Volcano.” It’s a mash-up of frustration, hurt, yearning, desire and rage that leaves the singer breathless. The pace becomes more varied after that sprint, but the emotional intensity remains. The Hazy shoegaze guitars of “Tear Up” and the slower-burning “High” create room for melodies to develop, and “Ok Hurricane” offers a lullaby send-off as lovely as it is unexpected.
TRUPA TRUPA, “OF THE SUN” (LOVITT)
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski of the Polish band Trupa Trupa is a singer of few, well-chosen words. He addresses uncomfortable truths, the absurdity of life and turns these terse poems into songs that feel like dreams, charged with spasms of noise, gut-punch bass lines and hypnotic melodies. Though the band released its debut album in 2015, “Of the Sun” is its first album to be released in America. It distills what has made Trupa Trupa a must-see in past years at music conferences such as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The quartet’s music emerges from a land embroiled in turmoil; “Of the Sun” was released only months after the murder of their friend and hometown mayor, Gdansk’s Pawel Bogdan Adamowicz. In that sense, they are heirs to a long Eastern European tradition of protest music, from Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe and Pulnoc to Russia’s Zoopark and Pussy Riot. The band’s impressive range encompasses the spastic punk of “Turn,” the wobbly atmospherics of the haunted title track and the angular funk of “Dream About.” They pull a redemptive refrain from the encroaching nihilism of “Another Day” and mock the culture of denial in the surging “Remainder.” These bulletins arrive from a perspective hardened by reality, but not defeated by it.
TOOL, “FEAR INOCULUM” (DISSECTIONAL, VOLCANO ENTERTAINMENT, RCA)
Tool’s first album after a 13-year creative, personal and legal impasse finds the band still carving its own niche at the intersection of metal and progressive music, flavored with Eastern and experimental textures, slowly unfolding arrangements and cerebral wordplay. Six of the tracks clock in at more than 10 minutes, with the inventive drumming and hand percussion of Danny Carey and the neophilosophical narratives of singer Maynard James Keenan dominant. Keenan adopts a sing-speak, storytelling mode as he zeroes in on questions of aging, relevance and learning how to undo the crippling head games that kept tripping up his younger self. The album plays like an extended mood piece that bends and drifts, with a shortage of the crushing hard-rock crescendos and riffs that defined the band’s work on “Lateralus” (2001) and before. The album is all about restraint until the closing “Tempest” and we get 15 roller-coaster minutes of guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and Carey at their peak as an A-plus hard rock/metal power trio, while Keenan finally lets it rip on vocals.
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