Saturday, March 13, 2021

A Gospel According to Nick; Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Carnage

Despite a 30-year musical relationship and much film collaboration, Carnage is the first full-length project Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have done as a duo.  And Carnage came quickly: ‘An accelerated process of intense creativity,’ comments Ellis, ‘the eight songs were there in one form or another within the first two and a half days.’ And Carnage is intense.    

Ellis is Cave’s compatriot and pivotal, co-writing, Bad Seed. He is also a formally-trained, poly-instrumentalist (violin, viola, piano, flute, guitar, bouzouki, mandolin…) who has so exquisitely written and arranged the string section framing the album.  Only a musician of such calibre could achieve such nuance, colour and drama as Ellis has here. 

And arranging is a great place to start, as it consolidates the record’s often foreboding, biblical ambience. With Ellis’s eerie, downward glissandos in the opening Hand of God,  there is an immediate sense of dread.  A tinge of the sinister in its broad, monophonic, Vaugh-Williams lushness, each tumescent mass feeling as if it’s on the brink of collapse.  As if a voice somewhere within suffers the temptation to slide flat.

Drifting above a muted, electronic pulse, the effect is bizarre and very apt for Cave’s deep register:  Hand of God coming from the sky / Gonna swim out to the middle and stay out there for a while / Way down low, way down low.  This is a river not symbolising salvation; rather, it is ominous and darkly magical; one of retribution and damnation.  And yet, underneath, Ellis provides a current evoking Cecil B. DeMille’s Old Testament. A soundtrack to Charlton Heston descending the Burning Bush:  There are some people trying to find out who / There are some people trying to find out why / There are some people aren’t trying to find anything / But that kingdom in the sky… And yet, there is always the looming reminder in Cave’s muffled, hysterical backing vocal, re-iterating the song’s title. It’s unsettling.  

Old Testament becomes Old Time when the next track canters in with greater urgency.  Mood-wise, the outlook is not promising.  Something akin to the onset of panic. As such, and locked into a modal minor-key, Cave sounds a doom-encircled Jim Morrison at The End:  ‘The trees are black and history / Has dragged us down to our knees / Into a cold time / Everyone’s dreams have died / Wherever you’ve gone, darling / I’m not far behind’  No, things are not at all looking up.  A nervous, tremolo-ing string section dive-bombs and is then eclipsed by the languid lines of some deep,  gravely bowed instrument.  Something set between a cello and the Indian dilruba.  Perhaps it’s both; the effect is truly haunting.  Through it all, Old Time’s backline never wavers, driving on a pentatonic figure, punctuated by crashing piano until Cave’s vocal decays in bellowing despair.  The end.   

As for the album’s title track, it offers little respite in sentiment.  Yet there is relief in its mellow, wavering electric piano chords tilting from major to minor.  Here are lyrical impressions of childhood and distant, past loves, swelling into a melancholic rush.  It’s lush, tender, filled with longing, then suddenly drops away.  

White Elephant is a sparse, mysterious, hip-hoppy monotony into which Cave booms with admonishment and indignation over...   Let’s just say, I’d hoped the piece was not intended as another dollop of post-colonial vindictiveness to be thickly smeared over its few, mesmerising layers.  But I suspect it was.  It’s tiring:  The white hunter sits on his porch / With his elephant gun and his tears / He’ll shoot you for free / If you come around here.  Sure.  Then, wish-you-were-here, in Minnesota: A protester kneels on the neck of a statue / The statue says it can’t breathe / The protester says now you know how it feels / And kicks it into the sea.  It’s a cleverly-worded, well-wrought tune, but Nick, be careful of what you wish for.  

From there, Albuquerque begins a series of cathartic vignettes, ushering Carnage to its end.  These are structured as ambient landscapes for Cave’s booming declarations to fill and explore.  Except for Albuquerque, actually.  Its plodding, sentimental piano and happily-ever-after string score sweep you into a Spielberg flick. To treacly effect.  Despite what is genuine poetic substance, it feels outdone by what’s overdone in its arranging.    

Whereas Lavender Fields is fully inspired.  Ellis is particularly brilliant here, structuring the rhythm of the string section as if from a pulsating squeezebox.  Broad exhalations floating and shifting around three chords through which we are returned, redeemed, to (the) Hand of God: We walk and walk / Through lavender hills / We don’t ask when / We don’t ask why / There is a kingdom in the sky. The effect is captivating. It’s a truly beautiful piece.  

The penultimate Shattered Ground serves as the album’s supreme, nostalgic declaration of love, opening with what sounds much like the first four bars of that famous Mozart Clarinet Sonata (I forget which K number).  This shifts serenely into a setting more typical of Aaron Copeland for Cave to bully with his recollections of and reflections on a relationship fraught with the dread of final separation. It’s only love, with a little bit of rain...  And so to end, Balcony Man emerges from a hollow of percolating electronica, soon overcome by lilting piano, swelling strings and female voices, all building for its cyclical refrain.  With the final, ascending progression instead resolving on a major chord, and Cave on a staggered You are languid and lovely and lazy / And what doesn’t kill you makes you crazier, it’s a poignant resolution. 

“A brutal but very beautiful record nested in a communal catastrophe.” is how Cave describes it.  Absolutely.  And there is something of a gospel record here too, revelling in desolation whilst longing for something greater.  We’re reminded that life has always been fatal - and there’s much carnage in that. 

David Adamick


Image: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis Credit: Joel Ryan

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