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Setting The Mumble Free From The Formaldehyde The Carnage of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Setting The Mumble Free From The Formaldehyde

The Carnage of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: February, 2021

approximate reading time: minutes

he croons "I'm goin' to the river where the current rushes by," over a throb that sounds like it's coming from one grave over. He works that river like the opposite of the Fantasia wizard, an old rat knowing exactly what he's doing with his magic

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
(Goliath Enterprises Limited)

Those among you, many in fact, who have bemoaned (to me personally, like I had anything to do with it) Nick Cave meditating his son’s death and the dying world and his own history in his own way over a series of increasingly Bad de-Seeded albums can all finally rest your weary selfish hearts. On Carnage, he howls and yelps and spooks.

Warren Ellis has been Cave’s musical foil for about a decade or two now, reshaping the batcave rage of a heroin vampire he no longer is into something that can exist in real time, something that makes sense to him if to no one else. His willingness to mutate provided an onramp for a very surprising third act. Cave’s radical empathy has expanded into two films, countless crucial missives on his Red Hand Files blog (he answered my question, even) and innumerable soundtracks. Carnage bears the traces of that transformation - notably Ellis’ sinewy soundscapes, but a bit of the old ultraviolence is present.

Cave opens “Hand of God” in a mumble he’s kept in formaldehyde since “The Mercy Seat” but it gives way to a cinematic swoon and he croons “I’m goin’ to the river where the current rushes by” over a throb that sounds like it’s coming from one grave over.  He works that river like the opposite of the Fantasia wizard, an old rat knowing exactly what he’s doing with his magic. 

“Old Time” could be an outtake from the Wings of Desire soundtrack - in fact, it doesn’t not resemble “Six Bells Chime” by stepbrother band Crime and the City Solution. Thick piano chords and a bassline insistent like a guilty conscience.  He has his preacher suit on, but now it fits the gravity of his voice. Eliis picks up that violin and plays violin on it. Makes me temporarily cease wishing for a new Dirty Three record for a moment. 

The title track is a ballad. Cave initially lost me when he became a balladeer in the 90s, so I get the foolish betrayal many felt with the glistening, almost new-age Ghosteen. (Skeleton Tree is a great record by anyone, including him.)  But I got over it when I grew into realizing he is a brilliant balladeer. The years I wasted! 

“White Elephant” has its roots in the chain gang chants that brought Cave to the party and his recitation in the crypt of reverb is delicious. Poisoned darts like “Botticelli’s Venus with a penis riding an enormous sculpted fan” and “with my elephant gun of tears, I’ll shoot you all for free” and suddenly the hellmouth opens under him to reveal gospel ecstasy. This track is a triumph.

Nick Cave has always had a tendency to front load a record and side B is a moodier, dreamier but less gripping affair. “Albuquerque” is pretty like “Fairytale of New York”’s opening without the benefit of launching into full debauchery. Same with “Lavender Fields.” It’s genuinely lovely, but in a way you might tell someone something is “lovely.” 

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Carnage LP cover

“Shattered Ground” takes the formula of Ghosteen and the duo’s best soundtrack moments but here he sings with real fragile emotion, building ever slightly in intensity like he’s adding rings on his trunk. For better or worse, it could be one of those synthy Springsteen songs you wanna hate but are moved by. “Balcony Man” finds him in the back of a dream where he is Fred Astaire, dancing through genuine naked love. The synths give way to the piano and he’s going on about being a “two-hundred-pound octopus under the sheets” and rides this mood into a Technicolor sunset. 

Perhaps it is telling that Spotify put on his similarly luminous cover of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” as Carnage played out, dancing himself out of the womb and into the tomb. But the tomb has many rooms in the Nick Cave cosmology. It’s a waiting room, a cold cellar for long term storage, a gamble, a mark on the earth, one rolled-away stone from redemption. Even in those moments when Nick Cave isn’t dancing on his own grave for our amusement, he still keeps the boneyard in view to remind us that our time is fleeting and now is all we have.

Essential Info
Main Image of Warren Ellis and Nick Cave by Joel Ryan
Streaming now.
Pre-order LP/CD released May 28th

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
about Alex V. Cook »»



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