Carnage is both a progression and double-back for Cave and Ellis, re-embracing some of their punk and sleaze of their past while still offering delicate, impressionistic texture.
Nick Cave has never been one to coddle. His music demands that listeners sit for a while with uncomfortable questions, for which he is seldom willing to offer a straight answer. The question posed by Carnage — a collaborative release with Bad Seeds’ lieutenant Warren Ellis — is simply this: What does the Kingdom of God mean to you? It’s a question you can’t escape; a “kingdom in the sky” is referenced, in so many words, time and again across the album, and what’s most fascinating is how the connotation seems to shift. In one song, the thought of a celestial city and an interventionist God sounds like a promise of hope; in the next, an omen of wrath; and elsewhere, a fool’s escapist fantasy.
Cave and Ellis wrote the material on Carnage during the year of COVID-19; described by its creators as “brutal” and “beautiful,” the album offers a sustained meditation on suffering, grief, and the tenacity of love, all filtered through a season of distance and loss. Cave’s elusive proclamations of God’s Kingdom are just one example of how his songwriting has become more impressionistic over time, and this slippery, mood-setting approach feels just right for Carnage’s transitory reflections. You won’t hear a lot of direct references to the pandemic, although a fetching torch song called “Albuquerque” features two lovers consoling each other as they are stuck at home, their travel dreams deferred. They can’t make their intended pilgrimage to Amsterdam nor Africa, and yet open roads are a motif throughout the album, setting a scene for escape, prodigal wanderings, and, in “Lavender Fields,” the sensation of being “appallingly alone.” The actual elephant in the room is a song where Cave invites all the demons of white supremacy to possess him, a reverse exorcism that finds him stalking and spitting violent, profanity-ridden rants about statues. This song, “White Elephant,” is the closest he has come in some years to the hell-raising narratives of his older, more punk-oriented material. (Meanwhile, the title song, with its Flannery O’Connor name-drop, can’t help but feel like a winking acknowledgment of the fatalistic persona Cave has cultivated over the years; he’s telling us that he’s in on the joke.)
Cave and Ellis have been collaborating since the mid-’90s, both in the orbit of the Bad Seeds and with a number of film scores, but Carnage is the first non-soundtrack album they’ve released as a duo. Fleshed out primarily with piano and synthesizer, it sounds at times like a continuation of the chillingly quiet music the Bad Seeds have been making as of late, particularly in the mostly-placid back half. And yet, Carnage is also the most raucous and textured music Cave has made in a while, shaking up the tranquil ambience of Ghosteen with a little bit of his band’s former menace, perhaps even a touch of Grinderman’s sleaze. On opening song “Hand of God” — an ominous incantation — Cave sings over rippling orchestral effects and an anxious drum beat. There’s rattling percussion and ragged violin flourishes to punctuate “Old Time,” pure gothic unease that answers the question, what would the Bad Seeds have sounded like if Ellis had been a member from the beginning? The album ends with a lovesick waltz called “Balcony Man,” where Cave compares himself to Fred Astaire and, speaking to his beloved, professes the one thing he knows to be true: “This morning is amazing and so are you.” Who knows what good that’ll do him when the Kingdom comes, but it’s a profoundly settling coda to Carnage’s disquiet.
Published as part of Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 3.