‘Carnage’ – Nick Cave And Warren Ellis’s New Collaboration Reviewed
For a lockdown album, ‘Carnage’ goes to places, although it is often an invitation to travel inside ourselves, to explore the labyrinth of our memories. At the very least, ‘Carnage’ is habited by a strong yearning for traveling during a year when we all stayed home.
‘Old Times’ is a car road trip – and not the only one as ‘throwing bags in the back of the car’ comes back in ‘Shattered Ground’ – habited by strange hallucinations and scary visions unfolding above Warren Ellis’s angsty strings and distortions. But there are more tender travels: ‘My heart it is an open road/Where we ran away for good,’ Nick Cave sings during the titled track, ‘Carnage,’ a slow and contemplative song, with melodic lines that shine like a bridge in a Beach House song – ‘And it’s only love, with a little bit of rain/ And it’s only love driving through the rain.’ It’s both comforting and poignant and the ultimate inward journey of a man stuck on a balcony for a year. The line ‘I’m sitting on the balcony/Reading Flannery O’Connor with a pencil and a plan’ surely echoes the last song ‘Balcony Man,’ ‘I’m the balcony man, I’m Fred Astaire.’
If the album title evokes a crime of apocalyptic dimension – or at least some terrifying event – it’s difficult to pinpoint what event exactly. For someone who wrote so many murder ballads, ‘Carnage’ doesn’t offer too many crime scenes, except for the slaughter of chickens. Nick Cave’s lyrics often appear like meandering streams of consciousness, but the song ‘Carnage’ vividly depicts a rural scene of possibly Nick’s childhood, and a child witnessing a real-life farm massacre: ‘My uncle’s at the chopping block turning chickens into fountains/I’m a barefoot child watching in the rain.’ If there is travel, it’s also time travel. What else a man stuck on his balcony for a year could have done?
As always, dreams and memories are haunted by old testament imagery and biblical symbolism blending with current times, a familiarity in Nick Cave’s work. ‘Hand of God’ (‘coming from thе sky’) opens the album with an abrupt sonic shift which transforms the song into pulsating electronica overwhelmed by a symphony of dramatic strings and choruses; the result is not unlike something from the last Radiohead album if you ignore the imperious presence of Cave’s very distinctive voice.
During this longing for travel, real destinations are mentioned, Amsterdam, Albuquerque, Phoenix, like relics of a tour that never happened. The song ‘Albuquerque’ works like an immediate new Nick Cave classic, the piano line puts a melancholic smile on your face and the vibrant orchestration wraps all your surroundings with magic and an optimistic serenity. It also follows the most violent piece of ‘Carnage,’ ‘White Elephant,’ a possible standout of the album and a jab at right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and the Black Lives Matter protests, that shattered our collective isolation this summer. There’s obviously nothing too straightforward, the layers of meanings run deep, and yes the elephant is a political effigy but it’s also a George Orwell essay (‘Shooting an Elephant’), and who wouldn’t make an Orwell reference when talking about 2020? In full contrast with the ambient lethargy, violence culminates in the song which starts as a menacing and provocative gangster scene, as violent as anything Cave has written in the past, and his ‘Red Right Hand’ days come to mind when he says: ‘I’ll shoot you in the fucking facе/ If you think of coming around here.’ However, the sinister throbbing loop behind the semi-spoken words of the start takes an abrupt turn into a rapturous and chaotic chorus with an unrestrained optimism, a sort of Flaming Lips’ ‘The Gash’ meets a triumphant ‘Hey Jude,’ overwhelmed by pure joy.
Most of the album wanders around hallucinatory visions, old testament imagery, memories, and tour regret stuck in overpowering inertia, ‘And we won’t get to anywhere, darling/Anytime this year.’ Natural elements are always in movement around him, the river current rushes, a rain cloud keeps circling overhead, but his visions are filled with the beauty of the countryside, and, as always water is part of the landscape, ‘Let the river cast its spell on me,’ ‘A child swims between two boats/Her mother waving from the shore.’ People can become water, ‘You’re a body of water flowing across the bed,’ or even sea monsters ‘I am a Botticelli Venus with a penis/Riding an enormous scalloped fan/I’m a sea foam woman rising from the spray.’ As always the imagery is rich, gothic, and profane.
Lavender fields, hills, woods, sun, and moon complete the landscape, reaching the omnipresent sky habited by that kingdom; we are told ‘There’s a kingdom in the sky’ in three different songs. One of them is the majestic ‘Lavender Fields’ and its baroque 17th-century orchestra vibe, blending a religious feeling with a cinematic serenity.
‘Ghosteen’ textures are echoed in some of the songs, such as ‘Shattered Ground’ which slowly vibrates around synth swirls like a giant cathedral where Nick Cave angrily laments about isolation, ‘We bought a house in the country where we could lose our minds.’ Meanwhile, ‘Balcony Man’ and its reflective observation – ‘When everything is ordinary until it’s not’ – puts on its lap dancing shoes and becomes a brief waltz with once again an ecstatic chorus.
If loss and grief have been at the center of Cave’s two last albums, apocalypse and inertia are juxtaposed in ‘Carnage,’ and if reverberations of anguish and despair can still be found, a large dose of optimism runs through the album. Several frozen characters are melting and leaking like metaphors for people’s torpidity and helplessness in this era of loneliness, ‘I’m an ice sculpture melting in the sun,’… ‘I’m two hundred pounds of packed ice/Sitting on a chair and in the morning sun’… ‘You’re melting by the motel swimming pool,’ … ‘I’m two hundred pound bag of blood and bone/Leaking on your favorite chair’… but there are many generous outbursts of sonic euphoria, also visible in the lyrics: ‘We’re all coming home/In a while’… ‘This morning is amazing and so are you’… ‘We won’t get to anywhere, darling/Unless I dream you there’
‘Carnage’ is not a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, but very much a Cave-Ellis collaboration. It’s a new evolution that still offers all Cave’s familiar themes, whereas there is certainly much more rage, anger, and aggression than in his two previous ones; if anyone complains the album is not rocking enough, well, 2020 was definitively not a rock & roll year, none of us rocked that year. Just like us, Nick spent a lot of time on his own balcony, thinking, reading, dreaming, and observing events around him. Warren Ellis’s electronics, loops, and string arrangements are a large canvas for Cave’s elaborate imagery blending banalities of quarantine life with surrealism: ‘I’m a two hundred pound octopus under a sheet.’
Nick Cave thrives with material oscillating between pure moments of bliss and a world that crumbles, the songs evolve without any classic structure, brutal shifts occur like wrong turns and new departures, and Nick Cave’s inner and outer worlds collide with rawness and beauty. ‘Carnage’ is a gift from the sky, emerging from a moment when everyone had plenty of time for self-reflection but very few crystalized these intense feelings as well as Ellis and Cave did.