I don’t share the affection for autumn that seems to afflict every other Michigan resident. Sure, the leaves are nice and the cider tastes good and the seasonal holidays have their charms, but these are distractions from the essential bleakness of fall, a time of decay, entropy and gathering darkness.
While people online are cheerfully recirculating the “Mr. Autumn Man” story from the Onion, or the “Decorative Gourd Season” story from McSweeny’s, or the inevitable jokes about Caucasian women dressing like Han Solo and carrying pumpkin-spiced lattes, I usually pull out my copy of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” which was published on Sept. 11, 2001, and begins as follows:
“The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.”
Ah, that’s the stuff. But while autumnal literature abounds, it’s taken me forever to find an album that perfectly evokes the season musically, until now, since I’ve spent the last month bathed in the ravishing gloom of “Ghosteen,” the latest record by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Cave is really only a household name in homes whose bathroom drawers contain above-average amounts of black eyeliner. His discography plays like an alternate history of the last 40 years of popular rock and has only made incidental contact with the mainstream — like his 1990s collaborations with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue, or his minor alt-rock hit “Red Right Hand,” which soundtracked an unforgettably creepy scene in “The X-Files.”
But the Australian artist’s catalog is as varied and rich as those of more obvious all-timers like Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, with a singing voice and writerly demeanor every bit as idiosyncratic.
Exploring Cave’s work has been among my life’s great pleasures, and across 17 albums fronting the Bad Seeds, he’s only become more confounding, restless and fascinating.
Even avid fans will depart the experience of “Ghosteen,” released last month as a double album, with a quivering unease somewhere deep. Bathed in sadness and hard-won hope, “Ghosteen” feels like the culmination of profound exercise in public grieving.
When Cave was recording his previous album, “The Skeleton Tree,” one of his twin teen sons died in a horrific accident — a tragedy that coincided with what had already been a turn into uncharacteristically somber and contemplative songwriting from a rock artist of fire-and-brimstone variety.
He started to tour without his band, dividing the time between disarmingly candid audience Q&As and quiet, intense solo performances.
“Ghosteen” is quieter still, piercingly so. The drums and guitars — indeed most of the trademark Bad Seeds ruckus — have all but vanished, replaced by swooning synthesizers, dissonant strings, mournful backing vocals. The tracks lack conventional structures, and Cave often sounds as if he’s talking directly to his departed son.
“I love my baby, and my baby loves me,” he sings, heartbreakingly, on “Galleon Ship,” as a stirring piano arpeggio bursts out of the ether.
On the opening track “Spinning Song,” an oscillating synth lifts Cave to the clouds as he pleads, “And I love you, and I love you, and love you…,” then flips into a falsetto for a breathtaking benediction: “Peace will come, and peace will come, and peace will come in time.”
And a god of the rock underground, in repose and relative silence, becomes somehow an even more ferocious and magnetic presence.
These songs are made for headphones on daytime walks when you’ve lost the sidewalk under a thick layer of fallen leaves, or living-room speakers as night makes its ever-earlier approach and its winds send bare tree branches spider-walking across windows. “Ghosteen” speaks the truth of autumn: that there must be darkness, and plenty of it, before there is renewal.