New albums by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds are always an event but the release of Skeleton Tree comes with more baggage than most.
For those who don’t know the sad story by now, recording was savagely interrupted by the tragic death of Cave’s son Arthur in a cliff fall near the family’s home in Brighton.
The fraught recording process is documented in Andrew Dominik‘s at times harrowing film One More Time With Feeling in which Cave attempts to articulate his pain in a series of improvised monologues.
The Cave we see in the film is reflected across the eight songs of this intensely personal album. This is not the marauding, barnstorming Cave of Deanna, Do You Love Me?, or Grinderman‘s No Pussy Blues.
Instead we find a man lost, floored, blown off course – a wounded animal – prone to bouts of self-pity and barely suppressed rage.
Though written before the tragedy, the first line of the album appears hauntingly portentous: “You fell from the sky, crash-landerd in a field near the River Adur”.
That one line immediately sets the tone for the whole album as Cave, his voice cracking with grief, tries to work through his loss.
Opener Jesus Alone is an elegy to absence – that which once gone can never be recovered.
Cave’s protagonist cries out but what he seeks can never be grasped
“You are the mist rolling off the sea,” he sighs towards the end. “You are a distant memory in the mind of your creator; don’t you see.”
Rings of Saturn features some of the strongest imagery of the whole album as Cave likens his grief to a hideous insect “her black oily gash, crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything“.
Much of the album’s music is electronic, messy, brooding, with crackles of static, as Cave’s Bad Seed cohorts, led by first lieutenant Warren Ellis, delicately sketch in the flesh around the skeleton.
There are growls and howls of synth and the occasional melodic choral chant, but the mood is always restrained, sombre, irredeemable.
Cave never refers to Arthur directly, but his presence is felt throughout.
“You turn, you turn, you kneel lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy,” Cave sings on Girl in Amber. “Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall.”
There’s a strong sense here of man whose faith has deserted him.
“I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world,” he says. “Well I don’t think that anymore.”
The central themes of pain and love and loss continue with Magneto, where Cave’s protagonist slumps on the bathroom floor “clutching the bowl,” his blood “full of gags and other people’s diseases”.
The temptation to lash out becomes almost unbearable as life’s mundane frustrations come crashing in: “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues“.
Even when there’s hope of love as on Anthrocene, “There’s a dark force that shifts at the edge of the trees”.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Cave urges, but there’s little solace here.
“Here they come, pulling you away/There are powers at play more forceful than we.”
I Need You comes on like a straightforward love song, the central character captivated by his flame’s red dress, but the circular lyric turns in on itself – always returning to the mantra “nothing really matters”.
Cave merges and meshes the lines of the song, cuts up and folds in his words, as his narrator admits his failings. “I thought I knew so much better.”
The heartbreakingly beautiful Distant Sky follows, with Cave joined on vocals by Danish soprano Else Torp.
Both singers express an urge to cut out and escape the trappings of normal life, but while Topp’s vocals are clear and hopeful, Cave’s are fractured, broken, cynical.
“They told us our gods would outlive us/They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.”
The most conventional song musically, The Skeleton Tree, can be read as a comment or summation of everything that’s gone before.
The musical drones, hisses and groans of earlier tracks echoed in the ‘jittery TV’ that glows ‘white like fire‘ in the corner of the room.
Again he calls out across the sea, but all he hears are his own words rebounding back across the waves.
The final words “And it’s all right now“ hint at resolution, but there are no easy solutions here, no happy endings “nothing is free”.
In less skilled hands, such an intense study of a father’s grief, could have been mawkish, dispiriting or voyeuristic.
But though he may be irrevocably changed as an artist, Cave’s songwriting and storytelling powers are as strong as ever.
He’s never been afraid to confront death in his work, but in the past his imagery has been cinematic, theatrical and shot through with black humour.
There’s no laughter here, only stark, unrelenting truth.
Not an easy album to listen to, but a great one nonetheless.
- The Skeleton Tree is available from all usual outlets visit nickcave.com for details.