Review Summary: Love. And pain.
Well, he made it.
Fourteen months after Nick Cave’s 15-year old son Arthur fell to his death from a Brighton clifftop, the Australian singer-songwriter has returned with the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album Skeleton Tree
. Many didn’t expect him to. No one would have blamed him if the thought of resuming the band’s blood-soaked, gloomy narrative hit too close to home.
Context threatens to overwhelm the album, which is as numb as anything the band has ever released. Remember, work started on Skeleton Tree
way back in early 2014 and there’s no swerve in musical styles to note the point where Arthur died. It’s an uncomfortable listen… but one with moments so passionately devastating that we’re left not with a depressed weight but with a keen sting of empathy and love. For love is, after all, where the pain has come from.
Musically, Skeleton Tree
is also the first Bad Seeds’ album to make us do a double-take since 1990’s The Good Son
. There is no precedent in the Bad Seeds’ cannon for the sparse, muted despair of Skeleton Tree
. The album is industrial, electronic and often dissonant and nothing here will ever see the light of radio airplay. Cave’s vocals and keys sit in the centre of the mix with Warren Ellis stretching and pushing synthesised feedback into sounds sometimes tense, sometimes sad and eventually soaring as the album climbs into a soaring finale.
Cave doesn’t make us wait before he addresses Arthur’s death. The first stanza of lead-off track ‘Jesus Alone’ marks what has been and what will follow in the album: “You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the river Adur.” Cave’s narrative voice clearly highlight a man too stricken by grief to appreciate even the simplest pleasures in life: clichéd lovely spring-time image hits the ear as “Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers.”
To take a step back from the feelings of empathy towards Cave the person, this is the point where we should applaud Cave the artist. The release the audience feels from this direct illumination of the grieving process involves us in the album, rather than having us uneasily second-guessing what Cave is describing, and therefore whether or not he is being honest with us.
At its darkest, Skeleton Tree
perhaps becomes too bleak to even appreciate. ‘Magneto’ combines surgical gore, homicidal rage and thudding nihilism to a frozen-still soundscape. “I spin on my wheel like a laboratory rat/I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl,” murmurs Cave, not allowing us any rhythm of beat in which to lose this nagging feeling of discomfort. “My blood was for the gags and other people's diseases/My monstrous little memory had swallowed me whole.”
This from a songwriter who once made us all smile as he slaughtered an entire bar. He’s not pulling any tricks on Skeleton Tree
The beautiful sadness of latter songs ‘Distant Sky’ (featuring a lacerating vocal from Else Torp) and ‘I Need You’ turn the album’s focus from unbearable grief to that balance between sadness and love. We’ll never know what it cost Cave to write the lines “I will miss you when you're gone/I'll miss you when you're gone away forever/’Cause nothing really matters/I thought I knew better, so much better/And I need you.” Just as the music on Skeleton Tree
is easily processed, the songwriting is perhaps Cave’s most literal yet. Nothing is hidden here.
The pain of loss will never truly heal. So all we can really say is, Nick: it’s good to have you back. Good luck.
“Let us go now, my only companion
Set out for the distant skies
Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
This is not for our eyes.”