Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Seven Psalms review – intimate prayers of extreme power

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Michal Augustini/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Michal Augustini/REX/Shutterstock

Two years ago, at the height of lockdown, a fan wrote to Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files website asking his opinions about prayer. As usual on a website where anyone is invited to ask Cave anything, his answer was long and thoughtful. “Prayer is not dependent on the existence of a subject,” he said. “You need not pray to anyone. It is just as valuable to pray into your disbelief, as it is to pray into your belief, for prayer is not an encounter with an external agent, rather it is an encounter with oneself.”

Clearly, this was a topic that exercised Cave during the pandemic: Seven Psalms features seven prayers, written in 2020, with a musical accompaniment by his chief collaborator, Warren Ellis. Releasing something like this would count as a dramatically leftfield turn for most major alt-rock artists, but then Cave has hardly shied away from the complex issue of faith. His changing thoughts about God are a kind of connective tissue that runs throughout his body of work.

His twentysomething obsession with what he called the “manic, punitive God” of the Old Testament informed the Birthday Party’s Mutiny in Heaven, with its chaotic conflation of heroin addiction, absolution and fallen angels, and 1985’s Tupelo, a recasting of Elvis Presley’s birth as a cross between an apocalyptic event and the nativity. His later discovery of the gospel of St Mark – where, he said, he saw Christ depicted “in a wilderness of the soul … consumed by frustration and anger”, at odds with “the wet, all-loving, etiolated individual” of his “decaf” Anglican upbringing – seemed to underpin 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, an album that found Cave writhing around in romantic and spiritual agony. More recently, the approach to faith he has expressed both in The Red Hand Files and his Conversations With Nick Cave tour helped fuel Ghosteen, arguably the greatest work of his career and inarguably an album of extraordinary emotional depth and power.

By comparison with Ghosteen, Seven Psalms is a minor release: 25 minutes long – with half of that consumed by an instrumental version of the seven short tracks on side one – and offered for sale alongside the pencils, greetings cards, and a jumper for small dogs bearing the legend Suck My Dick on Cave’s merchandise website Cave Things. It feels a little like an addendum to last year’s Carnage, which was also born out of lockdown and featured vocals that came close to spoken word, Cave incanting his lyrics as much as singing them against Ellis’s constantly shifting backdrops.

Seven Psalms takes that aspect of Carnage’s approach to an extreme. Cave talks, Ellis provides understated washes of synthesiser, piano and largely wordless vocals. Everything is drenched in reverb except Cave’s voice. Not unexpectedly, the mood is stripped of Cave’s propensity for wordplay and beautifully timed jokes. There’s certainly some vivid imagery, not least Such Things Should Never Happen’s depiction of a bird dying and a mother crying “beside a little box” – but nothing remotely like the line from Carnage about being “a Botticelli Venus with a penis”.

The words deal with loss, forgiveness and, frequently, the aforementioned idea of praying into your disbelief. On I Have Trembled My Way Deep and How Long Have I Waited?, Cave asks for a sign – “I have stood at the threshold of your wonder, bid me enter” – while Ellis’s music, which can occasionally rise to triumphant crescendos, turns darkly atmospheric, as if underlining the sense of uncertainty. Sometimes, you get the feeling that current events may have intruded on Cave’s thoughts. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Splendour, Glorious Splendour as giving thanks for civil unrest, perhaps (given when the words were written) the civil unrest that erupted following the murder of George Floyd: “The world explodes amazing at your hand … a gas canister spins, hissing through the street”. Meanwhile, if it’s tempting to say that this is Cave at his most personal, declining to lurk behind invented characters, it’s equally tempting to wonder if the narrator pleading for forgiveness on Have Mercy on Me is necessarily its author: “I have dashed the newborn dead upon the rocks, plagued the cities, thrown families to the cold, turned backwards all the advancing clocks”.

It’s an extremely powerful album – Cave and Ellis are superb writers, at the top of their game – even if you wonder how often you’ll listen to it, or indeed, what one quite vocal section of his fanbase will make of it: “For fuck’s sake, enough of the God and Jesus bullshit!” as one Red Hand Files correspondent protested last month. Cave answered that complaint thoughtfully and at length, with the calmness of an artist who must have known for some time that he’s out on his own, occupying an entirely unique space, doing things no one else does.

This week Alexis listened to

Metronomy – The Look
A fabulous Saturday afternoon Glastonbury performance by Metronomy sent me back to their breakthrough album The English Riviera on the way home. It still sounds fantastic.

• This review was updated on 30 June with a correction: Cave read the gospel of St Mark, not St Matthew.

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