Saturday, June 26, 2021

‘Carnage’ is the devastating, post-lockdown masterpiece that encapsulates the darkness and yearning for light that this year has been

Nick Cave is one of those musicians that never seems to stop creating and who only keeps getting better and better. 

Whether he’s working on a solo project, collaborating with the Bad Seeds, or writing phenomenal and atmospheric music for film, Cave seems to have an innate ability to exquisitely craft music and lyrics to connect with listeners and allow them to feel and experience whatever he’s feeling. 

This ability is matched exquisitely by long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, forming an unstoppable force of emotional intensity and wondrous orchestration.

'Carnage' is the surprise lockdown album from this dynamic musical partnership and has all the expected hallmarks of a Nick Cave project while offering a beautiful glimpse into a true artist’s impression of the world as it stands in 2021. This is not an album to have on in the background as you cook or while driving a car but must be attentively absorbed in all its glory – with a box of tissues on hand for tears both happy and sad. 


The opening track, ‘Hand of God’, creeps in with low-end strings, delicate piano notes, and develops into an eerie descent, coming back and forth with a pulsating, almost club-like beat against soft sparse strings, as you are pulled in by Cave’s echoey vocals. The beat stays consistent as does the subtle but effective use of strings, with the addition of high-pitched drone sounds and haunting backing vocals, all working together to create a sense of urgency and overarching darkness. The track has the feel of an operatic, epic musical tale with narrative, engaging lyrics classic of Cave. 


Old Time’ follows with another curious mix of simple acoustic instrumentation with drone-y, falling synth tones reminiscent of a horror film score. The use of shakers and what feels like a hand-played drum shows an African influence and keeps a drive going, while a number of instruments fall in and out unexpectedly, with small electric guitar screeching teasingly alongside sparkling synths and piano chords.


The first line of the title track, ‘Carnage’, cuts straight away – “I always seem to be saying goodbye/ And rolling through the old mountains like a train” – giving listeners a break from the intensity with a slower build-up and increased emphasis on the lyrics. Gorgeous female vocal harmonies and gentle instrumentation allow the picturesque and evocative lyrics to shine through, drawing you into a romantic, pensive bliss.


The album suddenly takes a sharp turn to the left with an undeniably poignant protest song ‘White Elephant'. With not-so-subtle references to the recent developments in the Black Lives Matter movement and current societal climate, this track is a force to be reckoned with. Even without the shocking and cutting lyrics, the track uses a disturbing, growing bass and siren sounds juxtaposed with hopeful-sounding choral voices to signal a collective sense of strength, without dismissing the pain and fear that has been enveloping the world. 


It’s hard to follow something as powerful as ‘White Elephant’, and as such, its placement in the album is ideal, with the ultimate-high of its intensity complemented by a series of softer but equally poignant tracks. ‘Alburquerque’ begins this journey to recovery with haunting violins and a soft piano backing, providing a reprieve from the harsh and finger-on-the-pulse subject matter of ‘White Elephant’, as well as a chance to appreciate the pure feelings of loss and melancholy that permeates through such a multi-faceted lockdown album.


Lavender Field’ follows suit with strong brass lines, Enya-esque choral synths, and elegantly simple chord progressions. This track continues the melancholic train but feels like coming out of the tunnel for a brief moment of sun, knowing that our destination is near. In fact, the lyrics feel like Cave looking out of the window of a train and pondering the small beauties and absurdities of life as they pass him by, happy and sad in equal measure. 


The album continues into ‘Shattered Ground’, which eases along with a gentle instrumental introduction, allowing the vocals to slowly emerge with even more sincerity than ever. By this point, Ellis has already proven the mastery and control of his orchestration and is is evidentially not afraid to let the music take a backseat. Listeners have no choice but to take in each lyric and appreciate the volatile vocal mood swings: from upset to at peace, to angry, back to hopeful and wistful. Intentional or not, this polarity is hard not to resonate with, reflecting the multitude of emotional tests people were faced with this year. Cave’s voice fades out with a repeated cry – “oh baby, goodbye” – making this, albeit penultimate, track feel like a new beginning, fresh and hopeful.


Balcony Man’ is a beyond perfect end to such an emotional album, feeling like Cave’s arm around your shoulder in a gesture of reassurance after such a journey, letting you know that it’s going to be all okay in the end. Similar to ‘Shattered Ground’, Cave’s vocals are at the forefront, with just some piano accompaniment interspersed with delicate strings supporting them. This track has the feeling of a coda, a harmonious summation of the entire work. The lyrics sound like Cave talking with himself – “and this much I know to be true” – at peace but still ponderous. The track permeates wisdom in that he still hasn’t got it all figured out, and focuses on appreciating the small moments; and as it repeats the phrase “this morning is amazing and so are you”, it urges us to find the moments of love and light amongst all this carnage. 


The incredible album ‘Carnage’ is out now. 

Aoife McMahon

Image; Joel Ryan 

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