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  • Writer's pictureCJ Halbard

Nick Cave and Project Tempest: A Certain Point of View

Musician Nick Cave deals with grief, loss, and beauty in his album Skeleton Tree.

I watched One More Time With Feeling last night, curled on the couch with my partner and some mushroom toast. It’s a film about Nick Cave making his 2016 album Skeleton Tree. There're black and white shots of Brighton, taxi rides through the rain, intense sequences where Cave, his collaborator Warren Ellis, and the band perform songs live in the studio while cameras whiz around them on dolly tracks and halo lights flare. A good film about musicians making music except that’s not what’s going on, not at all. Behind everything, not directly mentioned ‘til the second half but so close throughout that it’s practically burned into the negative, is the recent death of Nick Cave’s teenage son Arthur.

Everyone’s trying to be kind. Everyone’s trying to be human. But Nick Cave and Susie Bick, Arthur’s mum, are in a different place. They both talk with lovely honesty but it’s reportage from an alien planet. Arthur’s death - made even more haunting by the presence of his twin brother Earl - has simply shifted everything.

Along with enjoying the film, and the mushroom toast, and the feeling of a shared experience curled up with someone I love, it brought me back to Project Tempest having a point of view, which it does, and which I’ve mentioned before but not begun to fully communicate.

It feels like we live in a world increasingly shaped by data. By all these bits whizzing around. That’s certainly the big narrative of the moment: data will be ever more in our economies, how we deal with each other, what we value. People are building currencies out of pure math. I can order twenty seven flavours of peanut butter without having to put on pants or get up from the toilet.

The age of digital, then. In the same way that other eras used the Church, or factories, or communism as the threads of their world. Human experiences increasingly filtered through prosthetic algorithms, like we’re all one-armed bandits. You can make a lot of money betting on this shift. Out of thin air if you’re really keen.

But behind the age of digital I see something else, vast and obvious, so big it blots out sunlight and reason. The counter-fact, if you like. The one we’re all feeling, but the machines haven’t really caught up to yet, just like the cameras recording Nick Cave two months after his son fell off a cliff high on LSD could only hint at. Only preserve and medicalise.

I’m talking about madness. Not anxiety or depression or schizophrenia - though the brain chemicals that feed those states of mind and body are certainly involved - but a full-on shift in our emotional climate. Madness as a place we’re all going, individually and collectively, physically and imaginatively, like the American West in the 19th century, or Mars, or a ransacked supermarket on Thursday evening as a hurricane bears in.

The journey is painful, strange, terrifying, and ultimately creative. It’s the way out of the alternative, which is that we all become binary tabulators. But like other journeys, including grief, it's only truly discovered by going there.

The age of madness probably won’t be called that. Yet, like religion and steam engines and nuclear power and computers, it’ll change everything. At its best, hopefully, it'll become a journey of rewilding our imaginations. Moving away from being cut down to size and made measurable. At its worst? Our stories and nightmares will consume us while the algorithms chatter like flesh beetles.

‘Shaman’ might be a career option in this future world, if anything like careers still exist (though what else would you call Nick Cave already?). 'Imaginauts', perhaps - people who venture into impossible places trying to save others trapped in volatile narratives.

Maybe the Imaginauts are already here. Maybe that tapping we hear is them.

Maybe it’s your future to become one.

That’s Project Tempest's point of view. How it translates to a charming seaside town on the stormy New Zealand coast? That's the journey I'm on. And Skeleton Tree’s a hell of an album, even more so with the understanding of how something so beautiful emerged from darkness.

C J Halbard is the lead creator of Project Tempest, a growing story world of New Zealand folk horror and emotional climate change. Explore the town, listen to podcast conversations, and get the acclaimed novella 1862 free for a limited time by subscribing for updates.


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