Grief mirrors love in two parts

For an artist as storied as Nick Cave, few people truly knew the iconoclast until he opened himself up in April last year.

In a series of remarkable concerts titled Conversations, he engaged the audience in an unmoderated question-and-answer session.

This was followed by a blog a few months later called The Red Hand Files, in which he gave prodigiously eloquent answers to fans' queries.

In a post dated Oct 6 2018, he addressed the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who plunged into the Ovingdean Gap in Brighton in July 2015, as Cave and his band were recording their 16th album, Skeleton Tree, nearby.

"It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve," he said. "Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable."

Grief and love thus mirror each other in the band's 17th studio release, the double-album Ghosteen. Whereas Skeleton Tree is the sound of an inconsolable heart torn asunder, Ghosteen unfurls like a warm cloud, coursing through the capillaries of one's soul.

Cave describes the first eight songs as "children" and the last three tracks - two long tracks and one spoken-word - as "parents".

You can hear why: The first section invokes an idyllic haven, reflected in the cover artwork, The Breath Of Life, a 2001 painting by American Tom DuBois, which captures a childlike vision of paradise.

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    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

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In place of percussion are analogue synths which circle and infuse. It lends the proceedings a surrealistic feel: One is either suspended in a purgatorial nowhere-land or a refuge from the madding crowd.

Right from the offset, in the first track, Spinning Song, the inexorable gyre turns, with Cave embracing Elvis as the mythological revival of an American icon - "the king in time died, the queen's heart broke like a vow". His voice, a richly stentorian baritone, gives way to an airless chant in the last lines, echoed by a chorus: "Peace will come."

Sometimes, his voice reaches for the ether and frays, just a little, as in Waiting For You, shadowed by a synth made to sound like a church-like organ.

The second section, in comparison, pulls one back into the churn and burn of parental bereavement.

For 12 minutes, synths in the title track ebb and flow like tides, as he describes someone "in the back room washing his clothes" and confessing that "there's nothing wrong with loving something/You can't hold in your hand".

He closes with Hollywood, a 14-minute dirge buoyed on a restless synth that grows loud, soft and then louder, before drums march in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2019, with the headline 'Grief mirrors love in two parts'. Print Edition | Subscribe