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.