On his Red Hand Files website, Nick Cave reflected on a comment he’d made back in 1997 about needing catastrophe, loss, and longing in order for his creativity to flourish. “These words sound somewhat like the indulgent posturing of a man yet to discover the devastating effect true suffering can have on our ability to function, let alone to create,” he wrote. “I am not only talking about personal grief, but also global grief, as the world is plunged deeper into this wretched pandemic.”
Whether he needs it or not, the Australian songwriter’s music does very often deal with catastrophe, loss, and longing. The pandemic didn’t inspire CARNAGE per se, but the challenges of 2020 clearly permitted both intense, lyric-stirring ideas and, with canceled tours and so on, the time and creativity to flesh them out with longtime collaborator and masterful multi-instrumentalist/songwriter Warren Ellis.
The most direct reference to COVID-19 might be “Albuquerque,” a sentimental lamentation on the inability to travel. For the most part, Cave looks beyond the pandemic itself, throwing himself into a philosophical realm of meditations on humanity, isolation, love, and the Earth itself, depicted through observations and, as he is wont to do, taking on the roles of several other characters, sentient and otherwise.
The album begins with “Hand of God.” There’s soft piano and lyrics about the search for “that kingdom in the sky,” until Ellis' dissonant violin strikes away the sweetness and an electronic beat kicks in. “I’m going to the river where the current rushes by/I’m gonna swim to the middle where the water is real high,” he sings, a little manically, as he gives in to the current. “Hand of God coming from the sky/Gonna swim to the middle and stay out there awhile… Let the river cast its spell on me.”
That unmitigated strength of nature is central to CARNAGE. Motifs of rivers, rain, animals, fields, and sunshine are used to depict not only the beauty and the bedlam he sees in the world, but the ways it changes him. On the sweet, delicate “Lavender Fields,” he sings of “traveling appallingly alone on a singular road into the lavender fields… the lavender has stained my skin and made me strange.” On “Carnage,” he sings of loss (“I always seem to be saying goodbye”), but also of love and hope, later depicting a “reindeer, frozen in the footlights,” who then escapes back into the woods. “It’s only love, with a little bit of rain,” goes the uplifting refrain.
With its murky rhythm and snarling spoken-word lyrics, “White Elephant” is one of Cave’s most intense songs in years. It’s also the song that most explicitly references a 2020 event: the murder of George Floyd. “The white hunter sits on his porch with his elephant gun and his tears/He'll shoot you for free if you come around here/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 he kicks it into the sea.” Later, he continues, as the hunter: “I’ve been planning this for years/I’ll shoot you in the f**king face if you think of coming around here/I’ll shoot you just for fun.” It’s one of the only Nick Cave songs to ever address a racially, politically charged event so directly. And it’s a dark, powerful moment on this album.
CARNAGE ends with a pair of atmospheric ballads—their soundscapes no doubt influenced by Cave and Ellis’ extensive work on film scores. On “Shattered Ground,” the exodus of a girl (a personification of the moon) invokes peaceful, muted pain—“I will be all alone when you are gone… I will not make a single sound, but come softly crashing down”—and “Balcony Man” depicts a man watching the sun and considering how “everything is ordinary, until it’s not,” tweaking an idiom with serene acceptance: “You are languid and lovely and lazy, and what doesn’t kill you just makes you crazier.”
There is substantial pain, darkness, and loss on this album, but it doesn’t rip its narrator apart or invoke retaliation. Rather, he takes it all in, allowing himself to be moved and changed even if he can’t effect change himself. That challenging sense of being unable to do anything more than observe is synonymous with the pandemic, and more broadly the evolving, sometimes devastating world. Perhaps the lesson here is to learn to exist within its chaos—but to always search for beauty and love in its cracks.