I have been feeling very down lately, quite discouraged, because I am in the process of being retrained. I cannot tell you how awful it is. The worst is that the whole endeavour, which was my choice, is without beauty, interest, charm or inspiration. Therefore I’ve been in a low mood.
So, when I saw that the documentary about Nick Cave and his albums Ghosteen and CARNAGE, This Much I Know To Be True (2022), was available on MUBI, I very much wanted to watch it. But I remembered that Ghosteen had me crying buckets, and knew that if I heard it again I’d be in tears again. And I was already feeling sad. Then I reasoned, perhaps I need a catalyst, something to get this out of my system.
So I watched it. I did have tears. But it was wonderful! Here is why:
It reminded me again what is possible, how art makes the world better, how we can heal ourselves with what we make, and how amazingly good music and lyrics can be when they are created by truly talented people.
The redemptive power of music
A better reviewer than me used the term “the redemptive power of music” about the film. Yes, I felt that redemptive power. And I saw it in action again when Nick Cave talks in the film about the more than 38,000 (!) questions that people have sent him so far in his Red Hand Files blog. His answers to fans’ questions are so so real and so heartfelt because they are real – he writes them and he feels them.
It’s no longer viable to be a musician
The film starts with something that made me sit up straight in my chair: Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds, the man, the artist, the musician and poet, is now making ceramic art because he cannot make a living from touring. O.M.G! How’s that even possible? It’s not that he is bad at ceramics – oh no – he is talented! The figurines are clever and meaningful and so well executed. But for the man to say that, just state it so factually… Oh, I know just how he feels about having to be “retrained”.
He shows the viewer his series of 12 ceramic sculptures that depict the life of the devil – and the story that he tells with the figurines is significant because Nick Cave is a deeply spiritual man. He has had a hard life, and recently, another tragedy struck his family. But he has written about how his faith has helped him.
So à propos Cave’s retraining and what I said in my previous post: if you like a writer and want to support them, buy their books. If you like a musician and want to support them, buy their records. Because then they can afford to write more music or books, or paint more pictures, or make more videos. Social media is diddly poop, people. Patreon and the like provides mere drops in the pail. Living is expensive. Producing high quality creative work is expensive. The only meaningful support is buying the artist’s product. Full. Stop.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
The film documents the collaboration and friendship between Nick Cave and his long-time partner and band-member, Warren Ellis. Ellis is a talented artist and musician in his own right, and it’s fascinating to watch how the two of them connect to create music. It’s give-and-take since their two personalities are pretty much opposites. But for both Ghosteen (2020) and CARNAGE (2021), all the lyrics were written by Nick Cave, to music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It is a true collaboration.
I have come to the conclusion that many musicians have a sensitivity and intelligence that are hidden behind their public image and a loud, brash style. In the same way, many writers think and feel quite differently from the characters in their books. So here, on the screen, the real Nick Cave is revealed, wearing his heart on his very well-tailored sleeve. (I remembered that his wife, Susie Bick, is a famous fashion designer, so he should look good if she dresses him.)
His pitch-black hair is as smooth as his silky, pure white shirt. He only wears a wedding ring. Not surprisingly, he is very articulate. With a slight Australian lilt over a mostly Received English accent, Cave speaks the way he writes: candidly, thoughtfully and simply. His look is as simple and elegant as his behaviour. At rest, his face is drawn and solemn, his eyes very fierce. Before a song, he takes a deep breath, and then sings, as as his frown clears, it seems as though he is completely absorbed into the lyrics and the slow, sweeping chords.
And then there’s tall and lanky Warren Ellis, nicknamed “Waz”, to the horror of their friend and colleague Marianne Faithfull. He has caveman hair, an unruly beard, bracelets and necklaces, and sometimes bare feet. In one scene he is drooling over his copy of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium, which the poet wrote in about 1845. The man is a total aesthete. And so handsome too. That profile! Ellis looks wild and slightly mad, but my goodness, can he play! Such precision! He can play the autoharp, drum machine, alto flute, glockenspiel, tenor guitar, harmonium, loops, piano, synthesizer, viola, and violin. Phew! He also does background vocals, arrangements, mixing and production.
Cave writes the lyrics and does the lead vocals, background vocals, percussion, piano, and synthesizer, and also the arrangements, production, and mixing. He also designs the sleeves of their albums.
In a hall with the bare necessities
The film shows them performing and recording songs from Ghosteen and CARNAGE in an industrial-looking hall, with just the bare necessities: a five-piece choir, a piano, keyboard, three violas, a cello, Nick Cave singing and playing the piano, and Warren Ellis singing and making these amazing sounds on instruments I have never seen before – flawlessly. The whole thing is perfect, and now that I know what to listen for, for instance that the vocals sometimes come in on the downbeat, or that the key changes, or that the percussion comes in just for a few bars, it is awe-inspiring.
Ghosteen – about the death of a child
The Ghosteen album is a lament, a cry from the soul, songs in which the melodies and notes run into each other and spiral, like ancient Greek choruses in a tragedy, in ever-sadder chords. So in the film, you must not expect Pop or Rock.
Ghosteen was written in the aftermath of the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015. The lyrics he wrote are about grief, loneliness, death and our mortality, and not fitting into or understanding the world. It’s also about love, about being there for each other, about waiting and healing, and hope. CARNAGE was written during and about COVID 19, and the songs are about what the title says. The songs are arguably more experimental-sounding than those on Ghosteen, and sometimes more anthemic.
During the film, as I listened to and studied Cave’s face (the director, Andrew Dominik, was very clever to focus closely on his face), I knew that he felt every note and every word. And it felt like he was singing about what I was feeling. I felt the songs were for me. I wondered how it feels to him to relive the heartache about his son every time he sings those lyrics.
And that was when I had to grab the tissue box…
The redemptive power of music
At a certain moment in a few of the songs, the choir’s murmurs segue into harmonies, they shift into a rhythm, the chords fall into place, and like an anthem that comes straight from the gut, the song soars and lifts you up until it feels like you can just sing out along with it.
I did. Thank goodness the S.O. was not at home to hear me. Sorry, neighbours.
So much in life is mediocre, shallow, ugly or nasty. This is not: It is deeply meaningful. It forces you to listen and absorb. It forces you to slow down and allow yourself to feel. And what you experience is not ugly – it is sad, but it is also beautiful in form as well as meaning.
To give you some idea of how much the album Ghosteen, and this film, have meant to people, how it has helped them, here are a few of their comments. The official clip of Cave’s performance of Ghosteen Speaks (above) on YouTube, has been viewed more than 81,000 times since April 14, 2022, when it was published, and from the comments it is clear that people have watched and absorbed both the film and the albums:
THIS MUCH I KNOW TO BE TRUE - GHOSTEEN SPEAKS CLIP 81,484 views Apr 14, 2022 344k subscribers Retrieved July 15, 2022 This entire album is incredible. Having also lost a child, it resonates deeply with me. Thank you for creating such a special thing. GOD BLESS YOU, YOUR FAMILY AND "THE SEEDS", thank you for this beautiful lyrics and your music! IT KEEPS ME ALIVE... Greetings from Germany. I am so excited to see this. I got my ticket and anxiously waiting for the event. Art is life: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are my oxygen. Your songs are so full of feelings that you can almost touch them, thanks for existing, greetings. My mother passed away the week after Ghosteen came out. I had only done a quick listen to it when it first released it, and it took me 6 months to finally listen to start to finish again. It broke me like nothing had to that point. It's a piece of art that will carry so much meaning to so many people. I never imagined that the guy fronting The Birthday Party would transform into this. It's soul-piercingly beautiful. Nick's voice now has a new resonance, a quality that brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear him sing. I lost a child too and I know this kind of pain very well. It's sometimes unbearable. This music helps me................................ Andrew Dominik and Nick Cave is a duo that can never fail Life affirming watching Warren and nick on their latest tour . Jaw droppingly beautiful . This album it is something special. Thank you Nick Your fans will always look for you Nick. Thanks for the music! 🎸🎶🙏 Fabulous as always, keeping the essence of the Bad Seeds and that amazing melancholy Come tour the world again with your live shows. I saw you live at Massey Hall in Toronto. You broke hearts and balls. You took us on a tour de force of hell and creation. You were a preacher, comedian, poet, father, husband and lover. You exposed yourself in miraculous ways. You were standing naked propped up on the arm rests of the chairs. You bared your soul to us. The world NEEDS more of you.
The sublime Lavender Fields
If I had to highlight the best moments in the film, though the whole film is marvellous, I’d have to say it is their performances of Ghosteen Speaks, Waiting for You, and definitely Lavender Fields. (The pulsing visual effects on both Lavender Fields and Ghosteen Speaks are hypnotic.)
Lavender Fields is one of those songs that really gets into your head. It has a simple, circular melody, echoing over and over the same notes, with Cave’s voice weaving the melancholy lyrics through it. The choir sings the refrain softly in the background, and halfway through the song, that changes until there are only those sublime, swelling chords, rising and sweeping, and you really do feel like just bursting into tears. Musicologists have written about the physical responses that music causes in you when you hear it – and this is one such time. If you do not feel the chills run down your back, your heart must have turned to stone:
We don’t ask who We don’t ask why There is a kingdom in the sky We walk and walk Across the hills We walk and walk Through lavender hills We don’t ask when We don’t ask why There is a kingdom in the sky Where did they go? Where did they hide? We don’t ask who We don’t ask why There is a kingdom in the sky There is a kingdom in the sky (Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Lavender Fields (Lyrics from the Official Lyric Video)
Nick Cave responds to a Red Hand File letter
Later in the film, Cave explains why and how he created the Red Hand Files, and reads out one of his answers to a question from a desperate man whose life has collapsed around him:
Cave, having gone through some bad things and having found redemption in music and in faith, has a seemingly limitless source of human kindness in him. For all his fame, his rage, his anti-establishment views, his reputation as a wild man, he is in fact someone who has enough humility and kind-heartedness in him to be able to treat every stranger who approaches him with sympathy, and end every interaction with “love, Nick”. All of these feelings and thoughts he puts into his music and his performances. How can you not love him right back?
Watch the film – get the albums
I don’t often get so enthusiastic about something that I jump straight to the conclusion and just say – go get it. But this time, yes, go get the film or the albums or both. It’s good for your soul. It will ease your pain. It will lift you up and make you feel hopeful. For heaven’s sake, these things are so rare. Don’t let this pass by.
Lyrics – Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
All the lyrics to Nick Cave’s albums are on his website. Here are two of my favourites:
Ghosteen (Lyrics by Nick Cave) This world is beautiful Held within its stars I keep it in my heart The stars are your eyes I loved them right from the start A world so beautiful And I keep it In my heart A ghosteen dances in my hand Slowly twirling, twirling, all around Glowing circle in my hand Dancing, dancing, dancing, all around
Waiting For You (Lyrics by Nick Cave) Your soul is my anchor I never asked to be freed Well, sleep now, sleep now Take as long as you need Cause I’m just waiting for you Waiting for you Waiting for you Waiting for you Waiting for you Waiting for you To return To return To return
More about This Much I Know To Be True
(Text: Nick Cave’s website) “This Much I Know To Be True, directed by Andrew Dominik, will be available to stream exclusively on curated film streaming service MUBI globally from 8 July 2022, after receiving its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and global cinema event in May. Shot on location in London & Brighton, THIS MUCH I KNOW TO BE TRUE captures Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ exceptional creative relationship as they bring to life the songs from their last two studio albums, Ghosteen (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) and Carnage (Nick Cave & Warren Ellis). In this document of their first ever performances of these albums, filmed in spring 2021 ahead of their UK tour, we see the two, accompanied by singers and string quartet, as they nurture each song into existence. The film features a special appearance by close friend and long-term collaborator, Marianne Faithfull.”