ALBUM REVIEW: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, CARNAGE
Nick Cave is an eternal figure in rock music, his constant pursuit of artistic greatness is matched by legends like David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Like the late Bowie, Cave is a shapeshifter of genres, styles and perspectives. On Murder Ballads, he wrote and covered narrative crime stories with Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey, yet on Skeleton Tree he is a sorrowful, true version of himself mourning the death of his son. This constant risk taking has led to him and his co-producer Warren Ellis to work on major motion pictures like Lawless and Hell or High Water; they adeptly combined elements of ambient and industrial with grounded Americana. Ellis, like Angelo Badalamenti, can craft entire stories with his instruments. He is one of Cave’s main collaborators for good reason, Cave dictates the misery to him and he makes the listener feel it. CARNAGE is their first commercial project listed as a duo, and it puzzles me why they haven’t been making music like this all along.
From the opening track, “Hand of God”, the duo are doing exactly what they want, how they want. It starts off simple enough, a contemplative Cave is pontificating over plinky, dour pianos and an organ until he mentions a kingdom in the sky. From there, the track shifts entirely to an IDM-violin fusion that I absolutely didn’t anticipate with a transition that sounds like an airplane engine. Cave gets very freaky and mythical with his lyrical content, mentioning rivers casting spells and a divine hand coming from the sky, all while a higher-pitched voice shouts “HAND OF GOD! HAND OF GOD!” over and over again. It’s captivating to say the least, and continues to change and get more abrasive and shouty as it drags forward. The experimental, orchestral qualities are present from track-to-track with only short bits of brightness in between to keep the album from feeling like a gray cloud.
“Old Time” is such a beautiful marriage of Nick Cave’s gravely, existential spoken word with his newfound talent as a musician for films. The entire track is this down-low, 97 degree Texan night, full of suspense and traveling between motels. Sonically, the track’s bass line keeps the sound suppressed and covert, but there are little bits of fiery guitar solos and piano hits that bust out and give the track a shade of violence. I could definitely imagine a film version of CARNAGE where a man is driving his chewed-up muscle car to Arizona to get away from the law. I feel like the album’s title track would also be appropriate in movie form, the tremolo and twinkling keys reminds me of a horror movie, and Cave’s brutal words about his uncle “turning chickens into fountains” on a chopping block only adds more trauma.
Nick Cave is no stranger to be controversial, especially when it comes to social issues including race. On 1984’s “Saint Huck” by him and The Bad Seeds, he drops a specific racial slur while singing a narrative tale. While it’s a little bit different than him just flat out saying it, I still don’t think that gave him the write to say it. With that elephant out of the room, “White Elephant” feels just as edgy while being directly in opposition to forces that harm black people. Namely, Cave is singing about the acts of police and citizen brutality which cast a shadow over much of the summer of 2020. “A protestor kneels on the neck of a statue/The statue says 'I can’t breathe'/The protestor says ‘Now you know how it feels’” is unmistakably modern . He keeps it direct with lyrics like this and then gets abstract with lines like “I’m a Bottecelli Venus with a penis” moments later, it’s thrilling. It’s insane how he is so accurately able to show how pulling down statues and other symbols of old makes the white powers-that-be more agitated and aggressive toward black people in a desperate attempt to get their country back. Hell, we saw this directly happen in Charleston in 2015 and Washington D.C. only two months ago. “If you ever think about coming ‘round here/I’ll shoot you in your f*cking face” reads less like a song lyric and more like a Facebook post from a conservative uncle. The track is immaculately produced from top to bottom, beginning with a chugging, industrial slog that reminds me of “Tick of the Clock” by Chromatics, adding Scarface-style synth stabs after the lyric I just mentioned comes up. The track shifts to a faux-inspirational, Primal Scream style climax, “Time is coming time is now! For the kingdom in the sky!”, the chorus sings. It all feels like a celebration as the world is coming down.
After this track, the entire album definitely becomes a lot more overtly slow and less full of tricks. This is an artistic choice that mostly works in the project’s benefit, three of four songs that end the project are incredible. “Albuquerque” is this Americana fusion of Bruce Springsteen and Andrea Bocelli, where Cave really shows off his impressive vocal range. Typically, when artists get to 63 years old, their voice becomes charmingly off-key or underspoken. This is not the case at all for Cave, who sings each and every line of this track with intense passion and the vocal cords of a man in his 40s, it is a sight to behold. “Lavender Fields” is weak and redundant in comparison, I don’t think Cave’s songwriting is all there on this one, and in addition his performance gets overshadowed by the overbearing instrumental and choral vocals. It does have a really heavenly quality to it that I admire, but it’s still the weakest song on the album.
“Shattered Ground” and “Balcony Man” help steer the album in the rougher direction that I was enjoying on side A. The former kicks off with this very minimal synth tone that evolves slowly as Cave sings pained lyrics about a toxic relationship, “There's a madness in her/There’s a madness in me/Together it forms some kind of sanity/Oh baby, don’t leave me”. Two lost people are attempting to balance each other out, only creating more volatility. The way Cave utilizes curse words on this album is like a shocking red brushstroke, rarely there but disruptive when it does appear. “I don’t care what they’re saying, they can scream their f*cking faces blue”, he breaks after this moment and begins to repeat himself in yells (i.e. “SCATTERED ALL AROUND, SCATTERED ALL AROUND!”) “Balcony Man” feels like a very satisfying conclusion, it’s somber and slow, yet it’s one of the darkest moments the album has to offer. “200 pound bag of blood and bones, leaking on your favorite chair/I put on my lap dancing shoes/In the mourning sun” contrasts well with something like “this morning is amazing, and so are you”, it shows two sides of Cave. He’s at once brutal and horrific with his pen, but ultimately it’s his well-timed use of emotion that makes his songs so engaging.
I love CARNAGE. As someone who’s never been a fan of Cave’s music, this was a really solid entry point for me. It feels instantly like a near-classic, the way he and his producer update his very well-known sound with industrial and scored soundscapes feels so inventive. In the same way that Daniel Lopatin did with Iggy Pop’s track on Good Time, Ellis is able to hone so much of Nick Cave’s power by using a broad combination of organic and computerized instrumentation in a way that feels totally new.