May 29, 2024

Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree

BAD SEED LTD                    8th September 2016

It’s hard to know what can be added to the deluge of comment about Nick Cave’s new album. Most normal considerations about an artistic venture are swept aside by the context – the death of Cave’s fifteen year-old son this year in a fall. Having already begun work on the album but completed most of it following the family’s loss, everything on it carries that shadow. Ordinarily, Cave is a storyteller and a commanding imagist, using a few words to make an often-dark tale or picture. Here, this is his equivalent of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night (where Young and band got totally wasted and recorded an album overnight in memory of a roadie who, paradoxically, had died of substance abuse). Here, Cave is sober but frequently wasted by emotion. The normally tailored voice, acting a role, loses focuses, loses gloomy timbre and becomes raw with feeling. It doesn’t make for an easy listen, or even an accessible one. The first listen did nothing, the second showed its craft and it wasn’t till the third that it hit me. On the third listen, before eight in the morning, on headphones on my way to work, I nearly started crying as Distant Sky, the penultimate song, started.

It casts a slow and dark spell, often relying on the lyric – at least three songs seem almost free-form contributions from the Bad Seeds. The opener, Jesus Alone, is one of those, Cave intoning over rumbles, distortion and a distant siren wail. “You fell from the sky”, he begins. As we progress, the sense of family is strong. The loss of a child is ever-present in elliptical lyrics but so is his wife, an eternal feminine strength. But first, a meeting with a monster, a spider-like creature, who is “born to…. step over heaps of sleeping children”; a slow melodic hymn to death; “this is what she does and this is what she is”. Girl In Amber breaks the heart, sung/spoken in a broken voice, switching from lacing up a small boy’s shoes to reflections on how death seems more permanent than imagined in his previous romantic musings. Drifting between The Bad Seeds’ musical rumblings to an aching chorus melody, this is powerfully sad and angry.

No-one is better equipped to do this. As self-indulgent as it might seem, Cave can’t help using his life and, rather than presenting a universal picture, like Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (“Songs On The Death Of Children”), he tells us obliquely exactly what it is like to be Nick Cave. And that’s why I may not listen to this all that often, as grateful as I am that he was able to offer this astonishing piece of art.

Magneto sees a flip between memories of love and a hard anger, the sort that comes out at incongruous moments, like standing in a supermarket queue. I know Cave has composed this carefully, as he always does, paring words down, but there is a sense of the words dropping out as they come. The Seeds are unsettling, stroking their instruments and illustrating Cave vomiting into a sink. Anthrocene has pretty piano, a sweet melody but a creepy drum pattern behind the cold awareness of vulnerability, loss and longing. I Need You has Cave anticipating the loss of others he holds dear, images of funerals, memories of passionate love, fear of loss – all in an atypical Cave voice; out of tune, sing-song, adrift with grief – “I need you, cause nothing really matters”. “They told us our dreams would outlive us”, he sings in Distant Sky, dreaming of running away, illuminated by a soprano voice, elegiac and strangely uncomfortable in this dark and personal set. On my fourth listen, it was Skeleton Tree that had me welling up; “I call out, I call out,…… but the echo comes back empty, nothing is for free”

As I’ve already said, this is an astonishing creation, a deeply personal account, approaching its horrible subject sideways and a work of art to teach our hearts about what it is to be Nick Cave. It can offer no conciliation, no redemption, because Cave has not experienced relief without an elastic snap back to his loss. It stands outside the normal rock album as something to admire but not revisit too frequently. It exists and that may be enough.

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