My sister and I used to go camping with our uncle when we were young. Although my uncle was a very capable outdoorsman, we weren’t exactly roughing it in the wilderness; perhaps correctly assuming that there was only so much nature two bookish kids from Long Island could take, he only took us to the kinds of places that had their own metal campfire rings and didn’t have bears roaming around. Sure, there were places to hike and we had to use an outhouse, but we were still, like, ten minutes from a Dunkin’ Donuts.
And yet, despite that, you did become acutely aware that you were surrounded by nature. Not just bushes and trees, but the things that lived among them: the squirrels that would nibble at your marshmallow bags if you left them out, the woodpeckers that woke you up at six in the morning, the ever-present threat of ticks that lurked in tall grass. Even without bears, I found it a bit unnerving: I remember a dream where I woke up and saw dozens of eyes watching me through the tent, glowing like embers.
And yet, on “We Are Not Alone,” Nick Cave and Warren Ellis make being watched by nature feel oddly reassuring. Cave and Ellis, frequent collaborators within and without the Bad Seeds, recently scored a nature documentary called La Panthère des Neiges, known as The Velvet Queen in English. It’s a documentary about the elusive snow leopard, and Cave and Ellis provide their typically stirring orchestrations; “We Are Not Alone” is the actual song of the bunch, and it’s a lovely one.
Nick Cave mellowed with age a long time ago: gone are the days of the shrieking enfant terrible fronting The Birthday Party, or the eerie murder balladeer writing rousing odes to an electric chair. But even though his sound has grown lighter, there’s still something quite haunting about Cave’s music and lyrics. His voice is grave and sonorous, and carries the weight of grace and fathomless sorrow. And while “We Are Not Alone” isn’t a spiritual song, there’s still one of Cave’s much-loved Biblical references: “the world is a bush full of fiery eyes,” he sings, and our minds connect the two parts of the sentence into one burning bush.
But despite that Biblical portent, this is ultimately a sweet song. With Cave alternately singing “we are not alone” and “we don’t see them,” backing vocals cheer: “good news for life!” And it is good news, isn’t it? For all we’ve tried to escape where we came from, humans are just particularly advanced animals, and it’s reassuring to know that, no matter how far we stray from civilization, we’re still connected to the natural world.