Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have made a career out of scoring films—westerns, crime documentaries, apocalypse narratives and darkly atmospheric dramas. Yes, they’re bandmates in The Bad Seeds as well, and longtime collaborators going as far back as 1994’s Let Love In. But together they’ve made some of the 21st century’s most evocative scores and soundtracks, building ethereal backings and bleak dirges for outlaws, outcasts and figures defined by pain and desperation.
It’s this soundtrack work, along with the haunting and atmospheric sound of 2019’s Ghosteen—and even, at times, Ellis’ lush soundscapes in Dirty Three—that Carnage most strongly resembles rather than the more ragged full-band sounds of 2013’s Push the Sky Away or earlier records. The rowdy live presence of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is one that will hopefully return before there’s three albums’ worth of material to tour behind instead of just two (just), but amid pandemic restrictions—both safety and logistical—Cave and Ellis retreated further from their raucous rock ‘n’ roll indulgences of the ‘00s (Abattoir Blues, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!, Grinderman) in favor of a more insular, ambient pop creation that often ends up feeling cinematic in its scope.
Carnage is a work of pandemic art in a similar way as Cave’s live set Idiot Prayer is—somber, solitary (almost), and displaying a kind of magic in spite of the doom that surrounds it. And much like the two Bad Seeds albums that precede it, it’s an elegiac work, mourning a life and a world that feels unable to move forward. It’s neither as tense and apocalyptic as Skeleton Tree nor as devastating and personal as Ghosteen, but through these eight gorgeously orchestrated dirges, Cave is still engaged in a survey on loss. In the beautifully understated “Albuquerque,” Cave laments, “We won’t get to anywhere darling/Anytime this year.” Yet there’s a promise of better things to come amid Badalamenti-style slo-mo creep of the title track, as Cave sings, “It’s only love with a little bit of rain/And I hope to see you again.” It’s not the end of the world, perhaps, but the loss is still one that’s deeply felt.
Naturally, Carnage is about a lot more than the monotony and anxiety that all of us have experienced for the past 11 months—every Cave album from the beginning has often been as much about love as it is about death and vice-versa, littered with elements of popular music, literature and the Good Book. As ever, these are tales told through stunning detail and an ever-present mysticism. He channels imagery of “a biblical sun, a colonial sun” juxtaposed with the sound of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” playing on the radio in the austere Old Testament art-pop of “Old Time.” The carnage of the title track is merely implied, through decapitated chickens, deer frozen in footlights and the works of Flannery O’Connor. But the real violence happens in “White Elephant,” Cave’s most sinister and serrated song in nearly a decade. The song knots together imagery of elephant hunting, the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, and an eventual threat that “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face, if you think of coming around here.” It’s a moment of tension and fury that’s perhaps understated in comparison to, say, “From Her to Eternity.” But it’s a satisfying fury all the same.
Throughout much of Carnage, Cave is seemingly headed somewhere—driving, running, on a path to be somewhere else. It’s all happening in the past, but the wanderlust remains, driving what feels like a road movie built on memory. Some of it feels familiar, some of it is harsh and rugged, and all of it is quite beautiful. What it isn’t is hopeless; the romantic, bittersweet scenes that Cave and Ellis score offer the suggestion of being unfinished, that these rooms will once again be occupied, these landscapes visited anew. Yet even when Cave is fixated on the banal, as on closer “Balcony Man,” he does so with a sense of humor and reassurance: “You’re languid and you’re lovely and lazy/And what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.” Carnage, more than anything, offers the reassurance that crazy can be beautiful too.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.