While the creative talents of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are evidenced by their prolific output of film scores, dating back to 2005’s The Proposition, Carnage marks the first studio outing from the Australian duo, both members of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
It does feel somewhat odd that the duo would work on studio material outside of the Bad Seeds, especially considering that Ellis has emerged alongside Cave as the joint creative force behind the group’s last three albums – Push the Sky Away, Skeleton Tree, and Ghosteen respectively. However, not having the Bad Seeds’ name on the cover of Carnage does not diminish its timely, emotional potency.
Described by Nick Cave on his blog as being a “brutal but very beautiful record embedded in a communal catastrophe”, Carnage is essentially the duo’s lockdown album. A feeling which is personified by the somber “Albuquerque”, where Cave sings “And we won’t get to anywhere / Anytime this year, darling”; a lyric which holds particular potency as we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. From another article taken from his blog, Cave describes lockdown as feeling “weirdly familiar”, citing his own personal grief and his history of drug abuse.
The Bad Seeds’ last two albums are widely considered to be part of Cave’s process to grieve the loss of his fifteen year-old son Arthur, who died in 2015, midway through the recording of Skeleton Tree. However, that grief no longer appears to permeate Cave’s voice and performances like they did on Ghosteen, and especially on Skeleton Tree. The swagger that the Australian is best known for on earlier records makes a return in spots on Carnage, such as on “Hand of God” and “Old Time”.
While much of Carnage has the Bad Seeds’ minimalist work of the 2010s at its foundation, there are strong nods towards the piano-driven romanticism of The Boatman’s Call (especially on the album’s back half), while also infusing Warren Ellis’ cinematic strings, as heard on the title track, “Balcony Man”, and the aforementioned “Albuquerque”. All three of which are emotional high points of the album.
There are striking deviations from this sound however. The opener, “Hand of God” melds the cinematic strings with the dissonant electronic pulses found on Skeleton Tree, while the explicitly political “White Elephant” is both unsettling and menacing, while also containing a sudden transition from droning bass and icy strings into full-on church choir mode.
The latter track’s lyrics read like an allegory for the Black Lives Matter protests surrounding both the death of George Floyd last May and police brutality in the US at large, with Cave taking aim at white supremacists and right-wing extremists:
“A protester kneels on the neck of a statue / The statue says, ‘I can’t breathe’ / The protester says now you know how it feels / And kicks it into the sea”.
It would also be a major disservice to underplay the role Warren Ellis plays on Carnage. While he may not be the voice of the album, his melodies and assembly of instrumentation tie together an album with no central theme or consistent sound, making Carnage sound much more than the sum of its eight parts.
Emotional, unsettling at points, but often easy-listening on the ears, Carnage nods towards a tentative, yet hopeful future both for Cave himself and the world he sees around him, while also taking stock in the sobering realities of the present.
Album Highlights: “Albuquerque”, “White Elephant”, “Carnage” and “Balcony Man”.