REVIEW: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - CARNAGE

Updated: Jan 30


Favorite Track: "Balcony Man" Least Favorite Track: "Hand of God"

Few musical careers have taken a more varied route than that of Nick Cave’s. From his humble beginnings in the Melbourne music scene to his film score work with long-time collaborator and Bad Seeds band mate Warren Ellis, the man has a plethora of accomplishments under his belt. For this reason and many more, he has found himself at the helm of critical acclaim since the mid 90’s to early 2000’s. Cave has effectively re-invented himself time and time again. His latest reinvention and project is the first non-score related piece that he has released alongside Ellis. Dubbed CARNAGE, the art-rock opera sprawls over a tight forty-minute run time but feels as if it’s an eternity longer. Although they sometimes sound as if they are connected, each track on the project tackles a different but equally complex subject matter and like much of Cave’s previous output, a vast majority of the lyrical content on CARNAGE is like a foreign language to the common man.

On this LP, Cave’s longtime obsession with god, the mundane, the dreary, and melodrama move forward full throttle. Tracks like the album’s opener “Hand of God” shoot at the topic in a more direct manner; however, it is entirely possible that every track on this project mentions god in some hidden capacity. The intro sounds like a wide, establishing aerial shot, giving listener’s a view into the world that Cave and Ellis are about to share. It opens with some light cutesy piano keys, a mellow synthesizer, and Cave’s melodramatic vocal line questioning his belief in god. The instrumental conglomerate almost sounds parallel to a sonic representation of Heaven itself, but eventually Cave moves from Heaven to Hell. About thirty seconds in, he throws us into an auditory wormhole with descending strings as we fall deeper and deeper into the new instrumental passage. The rest of the track is made up of off putting loops of subbass, ominous sounding strings, and Cave’s ballistic shouts of “HAND OF GOD”. What it means is an enigma, but the emotion it conveys is terrifiyng.

One element of this project that is frequently difficult to wrestle with is the fact that it completely rejects traditional song structure and opts for something far more binary and absent from any sort of refrain. Now, this element does a good job at putting a spotlight on Cave’s storytelling but it often feels as if you are listening to Cave wax poetically over string sections and distorted instrumentals. Take that as you will, for some it may provide an emphasis on his storytelling, but for many listeners, it isolates the album’s draw; and sometimes it just drags on. Listening to someone you don’t understand for too long can become grating, but those willing to ponder and pick through Cave’s mind will be rewarded with subjective yet meaningful messages that are translatable into the lives of more people than Cave himself.

With that being said CARNAGE doesn’t run without its highlights. One of which is the spotlit closing ballad “Balcony Man”. The song functions beautifully as the eighth track in this tightly cut eight song tracklist; making the album’s final moments more memorable than what came before it. Over a very soft synth loop and some mellow piano chords, Cave tells a love story in which he questions his worth, his subconscious gaze toward insanity, and his sense of self. On the production side, his vocals are mixed in a fashion where they sit right on top of the mix, truly sounding as if Cave is singing right into your ear. It’s moments like these where you begin to realize to what degree Ellis and Cave understand each other musically. Together, they paint a canvas on which Cave can tell his stories. He may be waxing poetically, but he is damn good at it.

“Albuquerque” is an equally emotional moment on the second leg of the project. Over another extremely subtle instrumental, Cave tells a story of a mother longing to get to Amsterdam, but instead singing to her son about how she will not make it there. This is another track that receives its emotional pull from the vocal mix being so close to the ear of listeners. Cave’s vocals sit in a euphoric collection of strings and the joining of the two makes for something truly emotionally potent.

CARNAGE is not an easy listen, and it's incredibly confusing at times as well. Not confusing musically or sonically, but it forces the listener to question how they should even listen to it. It frequently feels like each of these songs are meant to be taken as chapters in one larger story, but it simultaneously feels like each of them could stand on their own as singular narrative driven tracks. The first half of the album tells its stories in a fashion that is much more abrasive, utilizing distorted instrumentals and sub bass in a fashion that is all too reminiscent of some of the darker ambient work from Brian Eno. The latter four tracks provide their stories with a backdrop that is much softer, heavenly, and light. They are more emotionally potent than the first half by virtue of their subtlety. However, that doesn’t warrant a disregard of this album's first leg simply because of it’s different approach. They each provide needed pieces of context to the larger picture that is CARNAGE.

The hard to decipher, intricate, and detailed storylines on CARNAGE are nearly impossible to pick through without being given some time to marinate. Cave presents his stories in a way that is inherently personal, and it is somewhat difficult to see the world through the lens of his eyes and retain every detail of what he is trying to say. However, that is effectively part of what makes CARNAGE so interesting. It is an album that isn’t meant for every setting; it begs to be dissected. The emotional hold that it has over listener’s will ultimately be determined by whether or not these stories connect. Nonetheless, the delivery that Ellis and Cave craft on CARNAGE is consistently cinematic. The specifics can be left behind while the emotional potency of each story is retained through Cave’s consistently emotional vocal delivery and this album's incredibly detailed sounds and textures. It’s a rock opera that requires the listener’s full attention. CARNAGE is meant to be pondered lyrically yet appreciated sonically, as a well lit backdrop for the meaningful stories of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

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