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Superb: “This Much I know To be True”

The documentary about Nick Cave and his albums Ghosteen and CARNAGE, This Much I Know To Be True (2022), is now available on MUBI, I just had to watch it. It was beautiful, memorable and thought-provoking.

I don’t often get so enthusiastic about something that I jump straight to the conclusion and just say – go get it. But this time, yes, go get the film or the albums or both. It’s good for your soul. It will ease your pain. It will lift you up and make you feel hopeful. For heaven’s sake, these things are so rare. Don’t let this pass you by.

Film poster of This Much I Know To Be True (2022), directed by Andrew Dominik
Songs featured in the documentary include Spinning Song, Ghosteen, and Hollywood, from Ghosteen; and Hand of God, Albuquerque, Lavender Fields, Balcony Man, and White Elephant, from CARNAGE.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

The film documents the collaboration and friendship between Nick Cave and his long-time creative partner and band-member, Warren Ellis. Ellis is a talented artist and musician in his own right, and it’s fascinating to watch how the two of them connect to create music. It’s give-and-take since their two personalities are pretty much opposites. But for both Ghosteen (2020) and CARNAGE (2021), all the lyrics were written by Nick Cave, to music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It is a true collaboration.

I have discovered that many musicians have a sensitivity and intelligence that are hidden behind their public image and a loud, brash style. In the same way, many writers think and feel quite differently from the characters in their books. So here, on the screen, the real Nick Cave is revealed, wearing his heart on his very well-tailored sleeve.

His pitch-black hair is as smooth as his silky, pure white shirt. He only wears a wedding ring. Not surprisingly, he is very articulate. With a slight Australian lilt over a mostly Received English accent, Cave speaks the way he writes: candidly, thoughtfully and simply. His look is as simple and elegant as his behaviour. At rest, his face is drawn and solemn, his eyes very fierce. Before a song, he takes a deep breath, and then sings, as as his frown clears, it seems as though he is completely absorbed into the lyrics and the slow, sweeping chords.

And then there’s tall and lanky Warren Ellis, nicknamed “Waz”, to the horror of their friend and colleague Marianne Faithfull, with caveman hair, bracelets and necklaces, and sometimes bare feet – drooling over his copy of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium, which the poet wrote in about 1845. The man is a total aesthete. And so handsome too. That profile! Ellis looks wild and nuts with his unruly grey beard, but my god, can he play! Such precision! He can play the autoharp, drum machine, alto flute, glockenspiel, tenor guitar, harmonium, loops, piano, synthesizer, viola, and violin. Phew! He also does background vocals, arrangements, mixing and production.

Cave writes the lyrics and does the lead vocals, background vocals, percussion, piano, and synthesizer, and also the arrangements, production, and mixing. He also designs the sleeves of their albums.

In a hall with the bare necessities

The film shows them performing and recording songs from Ghosteen and CARNAGE in an industrial-looking hall, with a five-piece choir, a piano, keyboard, three violas, a cello, Nick Cave singing and playing the piano, and Warren Ellis singing and making these amazing sounds on instruments I have never seen before – flawlessly. The whole thing is perfect, and now that I know what to listen for, for instance that the vocals sometimes come in on the downbeat, or that the key changes, or that the percussion comes in just for a few bars, it is awe-inspiring.

Ghosteen – about the death of a child

The Ghosteen album is a lament, a cry from the soul, songs in which the melodies and notes run into each other and spiral, like ancient Greek choruses in a tragedy, in every-sadder chords. So in the film, you must not expect Pop or Rock.

Ghosteen was written in the aftermath of the death of Cave’s son, Arthur, in 2015. The lyrics he wrote are about grief, loneliness, death and our mortality, and not fitting into or understanding the world. It’s also about love, about being there for each other, about waiting and healing, and hope. CARNAGE was written during and about COVID 19, and the songs are about what the title says. The songs are arguably more experimental-sounding than those on Ghosteen, and sometimes more anthemic.

During the film, as I listened to and looked at Cave and studied his face (the director, Andrew Dominik, was very clever to focus closely on his face), I knew that he felt every note and every word. And it felt like he was singing about what I was feeling. I felt the songs were for me. I wondered how it feels to him to relive the heartache about his son every time he sings those lyrics.

Watch how, in this clip, Nick Cave defines what he has become.

The sublime Lavender Fields

If I had to highlight the best moments in the film, though the whole film is marvellous, I’d have to say it is their performances of Ghosteen Speaks, Waiting for You, and definitely Lavender Fields. (The pulsing visual effects on both Lavender Fields and Ghosteen Speaks are hypnotic.)

Lavender Fields is one of those songs that really gets into your head. It has a simple, circular melody, echoing over and over the same notes, with Cave’s voice weaving the melancholy lyrics through it. The choir sings the refrain softly in the background, and halfway through the song, that changes until there are only those sublime, swelling chords, rising and sweeping, and you really do feel like just bursting into tears. Musicologists have written about the physical responses that music causes in you when you hear it – and this is one such time. If you do not feel the chills run down your back, your heart must have turned to stone:

We don’t ask who
We don’t ask why
There is a kingdom in the sky
We walk and walk
Across the hills
We walk and walk
Through lavender hills
We don’t ask when
We don’t ask why
There is a kingdom in the sky
Where did they go?
Where did they hide?
We don’t ask who
We don’t ask why
There is a kingdom in the sky
There is a kingdom in the sky

(Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Lavender Fields (Lyrics from the Official Lyric Video)
Official lyric video of Lavender Fields, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Lyrics – Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

All the lyrics to Nick Cave’s albums are on his website. Here are two of my favourites:

Ghosteen (Lyrics by Nick Cave)

This world is beautiful
Held within its stars
I keep it in my heart
The stars are your eyes
I loved them right from the start
A world so beautiful
And I keep it
In my heart
A ghosteen dances in my hand
Slowly twirling, twirling, all around
Glowing circle in my hand
Dancing, dancing, dancing, all around
Waiting For You (Lyrics by Nick Cave)

Your soul is my anchor
I never asked to be freed
Well, sleep now, sleep now
Take as long as you need
Cause I’m just waiting for you
Waiting for you
Waiting for you
Waiting for you
Waiting for you
Waiting for you
To return
To return
To return

More about This Much I Know To Be True

(Text: Nick Cave’s website) “This Much I Know To Be True, directed by Andrew Dominik, will be available to stream exclusively on curated film streaming service MUBI globally from 8 July 2022, after receiving its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and global cinema event in May. Shot on location in London & Brighton, THIS MUCH I KNOW TO BE TRUE captures Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ exceptional creative relationship as they bring to life the songs from their last two studio albums, Ghosteen (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) and Carnage (Nick Cave & Warren Ellis). In this document of their first ever performances of these albums, filmed in spring 2021 ahead of their UK tour, we see the two, accompanied by singers and string quartet, as they nurture each song into existence. The film features a special appearance by close friend and long-term collaborator, Marianne Faithfull.”

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