As surprise releases go, there won’t be many that will unite an artists’ fanbase more than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ CARNAGE, which is both a revisit to darker themes of their early work and a maintenance of the vulnerable sentiment that has personified their contemporary work.
If you could attribute one characteristic to CARNAGE that distinguishes it from the duo’s more recent discography, it’s that, in only, and only, a relative sense, the forty-minute dance macabre is a markedly stripped back affair. Carried into Carnage remain, in part, the floatier, more airy textures that defined the beautifully haunting Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, but there is a sense that Cave has somewhat liberated himself from the grieving shadow of his previous albums. What has come to fruition in CARNAGE are tracks that assert themselves through either a manic unpredictability or a more familiar graceful radiance.
Take ‘Old Time’ — it holds a monotonous hook similar to Skeleton Tree opener ‘Jesus Alone’ , but the addition of strings, creeping percussion and brief seconds of indescribably emphatic guitar squeals feeds a new and exciting life into the composition. Served alongside Cave’s deranged voice, it’s a never-fail recipe that has defined his and Ellis’ work throughout The Bad Seeds’ decades of challenging all who come into contact, deliberately or not, with their sound.
‘Hand of God’, punctuated with insistent yet hard-to-grasp yelps of “ Hand of God!” from Ellis, is also an extremely welcome addition to the mix. Again, the adoption of the mad-psycho personality from both Cave and Ellis pushes CARNAGE into terrain where they once imperiously ruled with early Bad Seeds and, for Cave, the destructive forces summoned by his first outfit, The Birthday Party. An existential carelessness snakes throughout these early tracks too, possibly a display of fatalistic nihilism given Cave’s demands for the “ Hand of God / Never come up again / Let the river cast its spell on me “, which reminds the listener that Cave, or his adopted protagonist, is far from psychologically settled.
Where the album’s title aptly depicts the first half’s sense of world-ending, apocalypse-approaching retreat, it’s swiftly left behind once ‘Albuquerque’ drifts dreamily into vision. It takes a little bit of re-adjusting after the emphatic concluding minutes of ‘White Elephant’ that can be slightly difficult to grapple with, especially after following on from its more anarchic predecessors. But tracks like the aforementioned ‘Albuquerque’ and the stunning ‘Lavender Fields’ are extremely difficult to pass by, calling back to the swaying grandeur of Ghosteen.
In the absence of any percussive energy, Cave is left again to direct proceedings. Sometimes he comes in despondent resignation, like the seeing of “ a pale bird in the sky” that’s just “ a feeling when you die” in ‘Lavender Fields’, while the shamelessly up-and-down romanticism of ‘Shattered Ground’ inherits an absorbingly endearing sense of glorious companionship (“ Only you are beautiful, only you are true / I don’t care what they are saying / They can scream their fucking faces blue again “).
CARNAGE isn’t an album of a particularly focused mood. You wouldn’t listen to the first few tracks if you were feeling remotely happy, nor would you listen to its more illustrious company later on if you were in a state of repressive anger. Perhaps CARNAGE is Cave’s personal reminder to the listener that, while your demons may seem insurmountable, there is always some resultant relief when confronted. And while this is a sobering thought, it may define the twists and turns that Cave has navigated over the last decade in sadness, anger, and liberating catharsis.