Album Review - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
There is something unsaid in this album. It lurks beneath the surface; present in its tremulous and unstable absence; haunting each note and imbuing each syllable with pain and anguish. Indeed, it is much the same in the documentary release of, One More Time With Feeling in which two thirds of the film elapse before this unspoken grief is given utterance. However, the words are finally formed and the awful ‘event’ is formally mentioned as Nick Cave recounts the blunt and brutal source of the consumptive trauma he presently endures; the loss of his son, Arthur who fell to his death the previous summer.
It is impossible to resist contextualising the album, Skeleton Tree through the prism of Cave’s raw and recent bereavement. Even though the majority of the written work precedes this terrible tragedy it is morphed and shaped by it in the recording process. The result is a haunting and beautifully rendered portrait of a man torn between mourning, creative expression and a desire to find some sort of anchor; some grounding on which he can rebuild his life.
The album is framed by the first and last lyrics. The first track, Jesus Alone begins with ominous reverberation. A screeching and spectral howl wails out before Cave opens up for the first time, “You fell from the sky and crashed landed in a field near the, River Adur’. In the context of his loss, this line seems tortuously prophetic and gives an indication to the dark territory we are about travail. The opening song is bordered by the final instalment and title track, Skeleton Tree which gives insight into the day-to-day mundanities and the heartache that echoes throughout them and sees Cave sign off with the melancholic and timorously hopeful declaration, ‘It’s alright, now’.
However, with or without the context, the 16th studio of album of this maturing and exceptional group of musicians is truly a masterpiece. Three years after their critically acclaimed album, Push the Sky Away, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have produced another remarkable record filled with luminous and ethereal sounds that are masterfully structured by masters of their craft. There is an other-worldliness to the noise they have created. There is pathos and there is catharsis; there is shock and there is confusion. There is a deep and submerging sadness running like DNA through the body of this work but the inventiveness and ingenuity of their creations is never weighed down or drowned by it.
In One More Time With Feeling Cave states his fear, weariness and distrust of ‘words’; afraid of the places they may lead him and the feelings they may abandon him to. This sentiment is perfectly expressed in the song, I Need You. The words are dynamically and relentlessly delivered as if in a stream of consciousness. There is the sense that Cave is riding the words; following and chasing them in the hope of escaping his emotional paralysis but, then retreats as the emotional burden becomes too great; too severe. The response to this is manifestly and hopelessly existential as he opines, “Nothing really matters, when the one you love is gone”. Finishing with the line, “I Need You”.
Preceding this is the song is, Anthrocene a forebodingly disjointed and disquieting collage of sounds; eventually finding its own fractured harmony. This track finds Cave in uncompromising mood in which any yearnings for comfort or solace are obliterated by the stark and unforgiving reality in which he currently resides and presently conveys; singing “All the things we love, we lose".
There are numerous intriguing features to, Skeleton Tree. There are innovative and arresting musical effects throughout. From the light and shimmering touches on Rings of Saturn to the duet piece with classically trained soprano singer, Else Torp on Distant Sky. There is also the matter of Nick Cave’s voice. In the documentary, Cave bemoans his failure to warm up his voice before entering the studio. The resulting ‘imperfection’ adds a new dimension to what we have heard in previous works. Gone is the authority and the confidence that exudes in even Cave’s most poignant moments. In this record, Nick Cave’s voice is consistently and harrowingly evocative as his vulnerability bleeds out through the cracks of unvarnished despair and a love unbounded.
Skeleton Tree will take its place amongst the best works that this group have produced. It is a monument to love and loss and has been wrought from the embers and ashes of a life now extinguished. However, this record is also a testament to their enduring ability to create music that is as exciting and as affecting as anything you’ll hear this year. In the end, we are taken to the bone and brought back to contemplative appreciation; even hope. So when, Nick Cave bows out with “It’s alright now” we are left with a sincere and genuine feeling that it will be.