Nick Cave on loss and improvisation

I wrote earlier in the week about my deep fascination with Ghosteen, the album released by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in late 2019. It’s a haunting work which spoke deeply to me during a strange transitional year in my life, filled with drawn out endings and incipient new beginnings. I was fascinated to read in Faith, Hope and Carnage how unusual the writing process was for the album, with its ghostly lingering qualities being a deliberate outcome of a radically improvisational writing process.

It is filled with songs which “shift direction, or rupture, or, worse, atomise before your eyes” and that “exist on their own freakish term”. Ghosteen is “telling a vast, epic tale of loss and longing, but it’s all busted up and blown apart”. As I wrote on Thursday, it’s an album about shattering and renewal; becoming who we are by necessity because the person we were has been destroyed by unforeseen events.

What Cave calls a “spiritual declaration” is, I think, calling for a hopeful and creative response to loss which insists on keeping something of what has been lost alive, letting go and moving forward to become someone else but without the emotional hardening which can result from an unwillingness to inhabit grief.

He describes his writing process with Warren Ellis, documented beautifully in one of my favourite films, as a kind of musical collage built around a shared process of ‘falling into sound’ in an improvisational mode. This was a process of seeking to ‘catch songs’, “trying to arrive at a formal song through the perilous process of improvisation, to stumble upon form through musical adventuring”:

I suppose the big change was that, by the time we wrote Ghosteen, Warren and I were purely improvising. I would play the piano and sing, and Warren would play electronics, loops, violin and synth, with neither of us really understanding what we were doing or where we were going. We were just falling into this sound, following our hearts and our understanding of each other as collaborators, towards this newness. We spent days playing more or less non-stop. Then there were more days of sifting through it all and collecting the bits that sounded interesting. And, in some instances, that was maybe just a minute of music or a single line.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 6). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

In his description of the process Cave is extremely clear that they are following rather than leading the process. As the first line of the album puts it, “Once there was a song, the song yearned to be sung”. Letting it be sung means “you have to surrender in a way and really just let yourself be led by the secret demands of the song”. This means being open in order to be a “conduit for something else, something magical, something energising”. He describes a process in which meaning is discovered through the process of articulating something which they found, rather than making something to express a pre-existing meaning. It involves a ‘leap of faith into an imagined realm’ which can be extremely disconcerting:

The creative impulse, to me, is a form of bafflement, and often feels dissonant and unsettling. It chips away at your own cherished truths about things, pushes against your own sense of what is acceptable. It’s the guiding force that leads you to where it wants to go. It’s not the other way around. You’re not leading it.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 9). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

This involves “having a deep understanding of what you’re doing but, at the same time, being free enough to let the chips fall where they may” in a process driven by vivid images which prefigures lyrics and music: ‘radiant’, ‘vivid’, ‘solitary’ images which ‘follow’ the songs and change their meaning as they recur in different contexts:

For me, the repetition of an image, or a series of images that follow the songs around and change meaning depending on the context, is a big part of the reason that the record has that strange, uncanny feeling. It’s an inbuilt feeling of déjà vu almost, and a sort of building of intention. The songs feel as if they are in conversation with each other. Really, what I was aiming for on Ghosteen, though, was the creation of a single moment that was being looked at from various different points of view. I didn’t quite get there, though.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (pp. 12-13). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

My sense is that they do in fact get there, creating a pre-intellectual resonance which invites a similar exploration from the listener to understand why elements of this strange album have moved them in the way that they have. I’m honestly not sure I can think of an album which has had such a lingering, slow burn and insidious (without the negative connotations) impact on my psyche as Ghosteen.

It’s not something I was immediately gripped by but rather a piece of art I’ve repeatedly circled, coming back to in a way tied up with the rhythms of my own life, finding comfort & wisdom in it but in a way which is an outgrowth of a much more immediate and emotional form of engagement. It is something I have recurrently turned to rather than chosen. In fact Cave’s description of his aspiration for the album perfectly captures my experience as a listener:

You know, I hope people might listen to these songs and come upon a line or a verse that somehow resonates with them, both spiritually and inexplicably. I feel that instinctive, mysterious connection can have a deeper impact on the psyche of the listener. It feels as if it connects to the listener in a different way, as if we have stumbled upon the song and its implicit meaning together. There is a sense of discovery, shared and binding, that creates that sublime and baffling moment between the artist and the listener. I hope this is the case.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 18). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

I wanted to share this later extract in which he talks about the freedom involved in grief:

Insofar as the rules that govern our lives no longer apply. I am very familiar with this feeling. It is the compensatory gift at the heart of grief. The usual precepts collapse under the weight of the calamity: the terrible demands that we place upon ourselves; our own internal judging voice; the endless expectations and opinions of others. They suddenly become less important and there is a wonderful freedom in that as well.

Cave, Nick; O’Hagan, Seán. Faith, Hope and Carnage (p. 190). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

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