On Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s latest collaboration, Carnage, Cave sings that “the moon is a girl with the sun in her eyes.” Despite being illuminated by it, the moon is unable to ever see a sunrise. This type of sharp poetry along with the tragic themes of loss and decay are what make Carnage so biting.
Cave and Ellis have been partners in crime for decades. Their collaboration has spawned many beloved film soundtracks, like the scores for “Hell or High Water” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Ellis has also been a mainstay in Cave’s rock group, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, for almost 25 years. However, despite their numerous collaborations, Carnage is the first project released exclusively by the duo.
While not quite the intense rock of Cave and Ellis’s early works, nor the ethereal ambiance of their more recent albums, Carnage sets itself out to be the ultimate Bad Seeds album, merging all the disparate elements of their discography into a singular point.
Carnage is an album marked by a tremendous range. The diversity of instrumentation, vocal delivery and content gives each song a unique identity and emotional state. However, it is ultimately the strong, pervasive themes throughout the record that anchor the album and make the listening experience succinct.
As is the subject of many of Cave’s works, Carnage is an album fascinated by death. The scenarios depicted in Cave’s poetry encapsulate the feeling of being surrounded by death and expecting it for yourself. While it may seem like Cave has done the theme of death to death, it has been a long time since Cave has explored this avenue with such power.
Following a trio of Bad Seeds albums that featured Cave in a more restrained role, Cave’s performance on Carnage is raw emotion. The opening track “Hand of God” features Cave already at the end of his chain as he nihilistically groans in deep baritone while orchestral swells circle around him. The ethereal vocals and the almost gospel-sounding orchestra on “Lavender Fields” complement the solemn lyrics about Cave’s acceptance of his dead loved ones. The sheer emotional intensity and range of Carnage showcase Cave’s typical themes of loss and mortality with rejuvenated life.
Ellis’s instrumentation surrounding Cave’s vocals is downright gorgeous. Ellis flexes his mastery at creating overwhelming oceans of strings and synth, leaving the listener no choice but to let it wash over them. Perhaps more impressive, Ellis possesses a superhuman ability to know exactly when to turn it down. On Carnage, not only does Ellis give Cave enough space to do his thing, but the instrumentation works in tandem with Cave, weaving in and out with his vocal performance.
Forty years into his career, Cave can easily throw in the towel and bask in a life of fame and fortune — and Carnage reminds us just how once-in-a-lifetime a figure like Cave is. In a discography filled with many timeless classics, it takes a true master to come out with an album that will undoubtedly be remembered as one of his best this late into his career. Like the great Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen before him, Cave is one of the rare musicians who serendipitously blends acting, poetry and lyricism into a single artistic package.
When Carnage’s tumultuous storm finally comes to a close, Cave is able to catch a breath. Having been broken and defeated over the course of eight songs, Cave is able to find a moment of sunshine amid the gloom. Looking over to his lover and the glow of the morning sun on her face, Cave ends the album by repeating a line that brought tears down my face: “This morning is amazing, and so are you.”
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.