On Nick Cave, Greta Thunberg, and our changing sense of urgency.
Nick Cave, September 2019 (Thomas Ehretsmann for The Washington Post)
Nineteenth-century Americans used to gather at the docks for the arrival of the ship that would bring them the latest installment of a Dickens novel. The story had gone to print months before—their presence wouldn’t hasten its arrival or change its outcome—but still, the fans stood on the wharf. In my youth, music lovers used to queue around the block, itching to be among the first to buy an album on its day of release. There was a fear that all copies might be snaffled up and there’d be none left for latecomers. Fans of Led Zeppelin or Nirvana would gather in the predawn dark, clutching their thermos and sandwich, prepared to wait as long as it took to show that they just couldn’t wait. Patient impatience.
On October 3, 2019, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds unveiled their latest album, Ghosteen. Not in a record store, but on YouTube. It was described as a “global premiere,” and presented as a sort of cinema screening, with solemn subtitles and an intermission. By the time I caught up with it, a week after its debut, 625,130 people had already watched it. By the time I wrote this, a few days later, that number had risen to 660,436. I cannot know, of course, how many of those extra 35,306 were the same people coming back to listen to the album again (and again). Anyone who owns an internet-enabled gadget can listen to Nick Cave’s labour of love whenever they want: Ghosteen is in the machine.
“There’s nothing wrong / With loving something you can’t hold in your hand,” sings Cave in one of the songs. He’s referring to the love we feel for those who will become estranged from us or move to far-off places or die (Cave’s son Arthur fell off a cliff in 2015). He may also be referring to God.
But the lyric can mean something else, too. Compact disc and vinyl versions of Ghosteen are scheduled for release in November 2019, a month after the album’s virtual premiere. Those physical releases—things you can hold in your hand—are statements of the music’s tangible existence. Yet many people will be happy to listen to Ghosteen on YouTube without ever “owning” it. Critics or advertisements will tell them that the album is profound and heartbreaking, so they’ll check it out, verifying that it is indeed profound (especially in the shallow attention they can spare to give it) and that it is indeed heartbreaking (or would be if they had a heart available to break while listening to some stuff on YouTube through their phone). And Cave himself seems to be reassuring them that there’s nothing wrong with that.
I listened to Ghosteen one Thursday morning, in the spare couple of hours before tackling my VAT returns. I confess: during the song cycle, I briefly answered a few emails, made a cup of tea, and sampled two blocks of peculiar dairy-free vegan chocolate whose flavors were “ginger ale” and “avocado,” trying to judge if I could taste any ginger ale or avocado. But the bulk of my attention, I swear, was on Nick Cave’s meditations on mortality.
I noted how much more supple and well-controlled his voice has become. He used to have a narrow range, not quite the two-note bleat of John Lydon, but certainly a voice that was liable to falter, flatten, and crack when approaching the notes hit easily by the great singers he admires. He’s been taking lessons, it seems, or maybe just practicing a lot. The higher notes are unstrained, adding new potential for grace and intimacy to his artistic toolbox. The songs strike me as a kind of devotional chanting, similar to lullabies, the Muslim call to prayer, the humming to oneself that one does in deeply preoccupied solitude. I’m not convinced that any of them is a classic in the craftsmanly sense, a candidate for a busker performance to a public that might recognize the tune. The songs on Ghosteen seem more mercurial, less structured than that. Cloud patterns or unfurling flowers rather than architectural buildings. I like them a lot.
I’m glad, though, that nobody is going to put a gun to my head a week from now and ask me to reproduce any of the tunes or recall any of the words. Maybe that’s because I’m old now and have heard too much music, or maybe it’s because my brain works differently since my wife died. What an irony that would be: that the grief which ought to have made Ghosteen more powerfully resonant for me is precisely the thing that’s rendered my brain unable to respond as it might have before loss.
Will I buy Ghosteen on CD or vinyl? Quite possibly. I may find that Cave and his design team have produced an object of great beauty, packaged in a hardcover book with lustrous reproductions of eccentric paintings. The words may be printed on translucent paper; there may be a bonus disc of instrumental mixes; who knows? I may buy it new or, alternatively, it may turn up secondhand in the Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill, or on eBay. Sometimes I’m a little slow in getting around to these eminently worthwhile artifacts. One thing is for sure: I will not be standing in a line at dawn outside a record store with a thermos and a sandwich.
Truth is, it’s not only my age, and my vast music collection, and my grief-scarred brain, and the changing status of the physical artifact in the digital age that put a different slant on the urgency of buying Nick Cave’s latest album. It’s a reframing of the whole concept of what urgency is; a philosophical crisis over what can wait and what can’t. It’s a change in the climate.
“I can’t wait!” is a phrase we employ when we want people to know how enthusiastic we are about some fabulous prospect, just as we might cheerfully declare “I’m starving!” when we’re looking forward to a nice dinner, insensitive to the fact that many of the world’s citizens are dying in famines. Britain’s prime minister keeps balling his fists and rocking with frustration. He wants to surge ahead. He has waited so unbearably long to be the top dog and it could all end with tragic speed. The “it” being his own moment of glory. His faction-riven party is often said to be in a state of existential crisis.
Ah, yes: existential crisis. I write these words a few days into a two-week spate of protests by Extinction Rebellion, a confederacy of climate change activists. Throngs of eco-worriers, including schoolchildren, elderly pensioners, former police officers, nursing mothers, bourgeois pillars of the community, hippies, and a death-defying Paralympian, have brought much of London to a standstill. Many hundreds of them have been arrested by gentle, embarrassed policemen who don’t want to be bundling eighty-three-year-olds into their vans, but have orders to keep traffic moving.
The reason that the protesters are willing to break the law and be arrested is that in past years they’ve protested legally, in the designated zones, and nothing has changed. Turbocapitalism ignores their signs and just carries on destroying the environment. Now, the protesters are actually impeding the wheels of industry. “I get where the activists are coming from,” says a disgruntled commuter, not getting where the activists are coming from, then blasts them for slowing down his car. A trader at Smithfield Meat Market accepts that “people have a right to protest” but complains about the disruption to his profits: “Customers were just not turning up.” The protesters have stepped over the line, and hardworking planet-destroyers are being prevented from getting on with the job.
In the chaos of central London, the rebels unfurl a banner: THIS IS AN EMERGENCY. They are echoing the speech of their teenage hero Greta Thunberg: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
I type these concluding paragraphs in my seaside flat on October 11, 2019. My house is not on fire. I know what Greta means, but in selfishly literal terms, my house is not on fire. There’s a brisk wind whipping around the streets, but hey, it’s autumn. The sea is the sea. The bit of it I can see when I go walking looks much the same as it’s probably done for centuries. Parents and children stroll along the shore and don’t have to step over any beached dolphins choked by plastic. All seems well. It isn’t, of course. But it seems that way.
There’s a wharf near where I live, too—the same wharf from which, in World War I, millions of young men set off for the trenches of Belgium and France. No ships visit the wharf nowadays, except the ones that patrol the Channel looking for refugees.
Whether the coming storm is the turmoil of Brexit, or another war, or ecological Armageddon, many of us are still living in the calm before it. Before the global farewell, there is time enough for the global premiere of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen, with CD and vinyl versions to follow next month. The complacent, uncomprehending part of me still imagines browsing in the Music & Video Exchange at some vague future time, and finding a splendidly deluxe edition of Ghosteen for a bargain price.
Long ago, the Music & Video Exchange used to be called the Record & Tape Exchange, before CDs came in and cassettes died a death. The shop is overdue for another name change, since videos have gone extinct. There used to be many different Exchanges along Notting Hill Gate: the Camera Exchange, the Musical Instruments Exchange, and so forth, almost all of which have vanished in recent years. The chain stores outside of which people used to line up to buy the records they couldn’t wait for, like Our Price, Tower, Turtle’s, Virgin and Camelot, are gone, too. History is trying to tell me something here, and I’m not listening.
Michel Faber, born in 1960, is the author of ten books including Under The Skin, The Book Of Strange New Things, and Undying. He is currently working on a nonfiction book about music.
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