“A word that would light up the night” - Listening to Nick Cave’s “Ghosteen” in Advent
As a relative newcomer to the Anglican tradition, Advent’s significance as a season, while not totally unfamiliar, has been welcome and refreshing. I also deeply appreciate a phrase I read in various places that seems popular in Anglican circles: “All may, some should, none must”. It’s a principle that, at first glance, seems to respect individual conscience and, dare I say, the diversity of Christian experience.
That said, it’s also been strange to see the contentiousness that the faithful sometimes bring to this season. Some admonish personal observance of this part of the liturgical calendar as form of resistance to the relentless commercialization of our broader culture, while self-described “Advent snobs” are making an effort to repent of their pretensions and urging us to break out the Kenny G records post-haste in opposition to the bleakness of our news cycles and political polarization.
Coming from a church background where Advent is merely the weeks leading up to Christmas (and we listened to a lot of Kenny G), there’s no shortage of Advent hymns I’ve never been exposed to. That said, when I finally gave a listen to Ghosteen, the most recent album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, I didn’t expect to find an expression of longing and hope in the midst of darkness so potent, that you could almost call it an Advent album.
Written wholly in the years since the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son in 2015, the album feels equal parts hopeful and haunted. In the first track’s outro, “Spinning Song”, Cave repeats these words,
“Peace will come, a peace will come, a peace will come in time A time will come, a time will come, a time will come for us”
Which leads into the second track, “Bright Horses”, where he sings in the second verse,
“And everyone has a heart and it’s calling for something And we’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are And horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire The fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord And everyone is hidden, and everyone is cruel And there’s no shortage of tyrants and no shortage of fools And the little white shape dancing at the end of the hall Is just a wish that time can’t dissolve at all”
Cave’s lyrics express the longing of every heart that feels sick and tired, that is discontent with the world as it is. We hide our true selves and show cruelty to one another. Tyrants and fools dominant our public and private lives. And what is the “little white shape” that dances? According to one review), the suffix “-een” in “Ghosteen” is an anglicization of an Irish expression denoting “something small, but also something benevolent.” References to ghosts and spirits permeate the record. Perhaps we could infer that the “little white shape” is the ghost of his lost son, whose absence is almost felt as a presence that cannot be taken away. It’s a bleak image of this present darkness.
But as the melody turns back to the instrumental refrain of the song’s opening,
“Oh, this world is plain to see It don’t mean we can’t believe in something And anyway, my baby’s coming back now on the next train I can hear the whistle blowin’, I can hear the mighty roar I can hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord Oh, the train is coming, and I’m standing here to see And it’s bringing my baby right back to me Well, there are some things that are hard to explain But my baby’s coming home now on the 5:30 train“
Despite the plainness of our world and its apparent brokenness, we can still have hope. We await a better world, that comes with a “mighty roar”. And the fields which seem barren of divine presence are in truth the “pastures of the Lord.” And the speaker’s baby is returning, and the speaker watches for this train.
Or consider the second verse of “Sun Forest”:
“And a man called Jesus, He promised He would leave us With a word that would light up the night, oh, the night But the stars hang from threads and blink off one by one And it isn’t any fun, no, it isn’t any fun To be standing here alone with nowhere to be With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief And everybody hanging from a tree, from a tree And everybody hanging from a tree”
Admittedly, I’ve overlooked some passages from these songs, to say nothing of the entire songs I’ve neglected to explore. I know nothing of Cave’s spiritual inclinations, and I don’t presume to impute any intending religious meaning to the album. To appropriate Cave’s creation to make a theological point without honoring the grief and sorrow along with the wonder and joy therein would be to do violence to his work. I commend it to you regardless of any spiritual significance I might find in it. But I also believe his words, regardless of their intent, are a profound example of the emotions and experiences to which the season of Advent is addressed.
And I also think Cave’s words are worth considering when we encounter the push and pull of controversies around the observance of Advent. Such debates can sound like mere dogmatic infighting to those listening who simply need the promise the season offers. To people “sick and tired of seeing things as they are”, liturgical debates as such can ring hollow, and risk rendering abstract the true comfort in the story they’re fighting over.
For one grappling with loss, or frustration at the tyrants in the world, Advent opens a space in which to lament, and to yearn, for a better world and a “word that would light up the night.” While the “Advent police” can seem severe, there is also a deep grace in allowing the church, whose expressions can devolve into sentimentalized joy or exacting demands for personal improvement, to be a place that acknowledges and embraces the grief and longing many feel.
I’m unsure how to end this, other than to say regardless of how we observe the season, let it be in a manner that reflects the grace given to us. The word that lights up the night came from the man who was mad with grief as he hung from a tree: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do”. Let us not forsake others in their grief and madness. We have been given a word to share with the world. And that word always lights up the night.