Album reviews: Nick Cave, Jon Regen, and Big Thief
What you should, or should not, be listening to this week.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
(Ghosteen *** 1/2)
Nick Cave’s 2016 album The Skeleton Tree was so somber and stark that it was widely perceived to be a response to the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, the previous year. But while those Skeleton songs were emotionally raw, they were mostly written before tragedy struck. Ghosteen, a sorrowful meditation packaged as a double CD, is Cave’s more immersive confrontation with loss. It’s also part of a remarkable, open-hearted period of public grieving and connecting with his audience for the Australian-born rocker, along with his Conversations with Nick Cave concert tour and the Red Hand Files, the website where he has elevated the Reddit ask-me-anything concept to literary heights. Ghosteen carries on that process with 11 elegant songs, most of them mid- or down-tempo. Cave has mysteriously characterized the first eight songs as the album’s “children,” and the final three as their “parents.” “Ghosteen is a migrating spirit,” he has said. The songs put aside the aggression of much of Cave’s work with the Bad Seeds, opting for ambient arrangements built on keyboards and electronics played and programmed by Cave’s collaborator, violinist Warren Ellis. Moving from a sonorous baritone to a quivering falsetto, Cave brings the listener along on a harrowing sojourn as he seeks not to get over his grief, but to live with it. “It’s a long way to find peace of mind,” he sings on the 14-minute closer “Hollywood,” not knowing if he ever will. A gorgeous album. — Dan DeLuca
(Ropeadope *** 1/2)
“I’m back here in style,” Jon Regen sings more matter-of-factly than boastfully on the title song of his new album. Yes, he is. The piano man has always exuded an impeccable stylishness, a blend of earthiness and sophistication that recalls such fellow masters of the 88s as Allen Toussaint and Bruce Hornsby (a big fan). Those qualities get their best expression on Higher Ground, on which Regen collaborates with producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Johnson of Jamiroquai and that features guests including fellow keyboardists Benmont Tench and Chuck Leavell and Police guitarist Andy Summers. The first track and first single, “Wide Awake,” encapsulates Regen’s approach. It’s an intoxicating number that sounds forward-looking without being faddish, and that’s because it’s grounded in the old verities that have always made Regen’s music so appealing: melody and hooks, craftsmanship and soul. As the set progresses, Regen moves easily from elegiac ballads to bursts of boogie and New Orleans-flavored R&B, making them all seem of a piece. And with “Who Cares If Everybody Knows,” he even incorporates a recitation addressing contemporary issues. The quasi-rap is a daring move, but it works perfectly, underscoring the strength of Regen’s writing without undermining the overall timeless feel of the music. — Nick Cristiano
(4AD *** 1/2)
In May, Big Thief released U.F.O.F., its third album of stirring and absorbing folk-rock. Five months later, the Brooklyn quartet adds another full-length to its prolific streak (one that could also extend to last October’s abysskiss, the solo album from band leader Adrienne Lenker). They recorded Two Hands in a Texas desert studio immediately after finishing U.F.O.F. in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s looser, more spacious and more intuitive, but no less rewarding.
Lenker sings in a high, trembling, unadorned voice that’s simultaneously delicate and strong, and her songs explore the tensions and power dynamics between individuals: They’re full of blood and tears, denials and pleas, struggles and fears. “Everyone needs a home and deserves protection,” Lenker sings in “Forgotten Eyes,” a loping heartland rock song. The tempos are often slow and the textures precise and isolated in the mix, but everything ratchets up on “Not,” the six-minute centerpiece that builds to a distorted, Neil Young-like guitar solo unlike anything else on the often-restrained Two Hands. It’s a powerful moment of release on an impressive album simmering with tensions. — Steve Klinge
Big Thief plays at 8:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 9, at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. Sold out. 215-232-2100, utphilly.com.