Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
(Bad Seed Ltd)
Skeleton Tree is the sixteenth studio album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Simon Tucker reviews an album awash in symbolism and grief but also displaying moments of optimism and light.
How would one cope with trauma? Would you bury your head and ignore emotion? Would you stiff upper lip your way through the next few months/years? Would you lose yourself in your work and/or grief? Thankfully, many of us have not had to face up to such a challenge just yet. Unfortunately, there are many that have. Nick Cave, sadly, falls into the latter category as in July 2015 his young son tragically died in an accident. There is no point in even pretending that you understand what he and his family went (and are still going) through unless you have been there yourself and whilst many of the songs here were written and recorded before that horrible event, it is this one moment in time that hangs over the album. When you watch the documentary One More Time With Feeling (our review of which is here) which proceeded the album you are informed that even though (as previously mentioned) a lot of the album was written before the event it (Arthur’s passing) affected Cave and the Bad Seeds outlook on the finished work. You are told that due to the trauma (as Cave himself puts it) they eschewed their usual process of reediting and polishing, leaving rough edges, off-time vocals and equipment mistakes. It is this way of thinking that helps Skeleton Tree have an innate beauty but also a direct rawness.
Sonically, Skeleton Tree is not too far removed from its predecessor, 2013’s wonderful Push The Sky Away. It shares that albums melancholy and intimacy but where that album was polished and had added moments of swagger and trademark Cave humor, Skeleton Tree is more sombre and rough around the edges (which is of course as it should be).
The first taste we were given of the album came in the form of lead single and album opener Jesus Alone. A mixture of industrial drone and Gothic blues it is a startling song that manages to fuse the futuristic with dust-bowl hymns. As strings (conducted in dramatic fashion by Warren Ellis) rise and fall, Jesus Alone makes us feel like we are lost at sea in a storm calling out into the squall for loved ones we fear we may never see again.
Jesus Alone, Anthrocene and Magneto are the three songs on Skeleton Tree which sound like a railing against the world, with all three utilizing loose wires popping and pedals fizzing, effects that could and would have (in normal circumstances) been smoothed out and touched up. They are oppressive songs that squeeze the mind and give you a sense of claustrophobia.
The other five songs on the album follow a more traditional path but are in no way inferior as they lay bare the soul of its creator.
Rings of Saturn and Girl in Amber play out like cut-up love stories about Cave’s wife Susie Bick and the Bad Seeds themselves, and are intriguing in their non-linear narrative style.
This is a recurring feature within Skeleton Tree. Cave has slowly been moving away from character driven narrative storytelling for a while now but it feels with this album he has reached the peak of his powers. Lines are awash in imagery and symbolism and this is where it becomes a difficult listen. Lines leap out at you throughout that will haunt you long after listening.
On the aforementioned Jesus Alone, Cave opens with the line “You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur” which is not far from when his son fell to his death. When Cave sings “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world. In a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth. Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more” and “You turn, you turn, you kneel lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy. Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall” on Girl In Amber you start to wonder how true his statement was about most of the lyrics being written before July 2015. Other lines such as I Need You’s “And the long black cars waiting round I will miss you when you’re gone” and Distant Sky’s “Let us go now. My darling companion. Set out for the distant skies” also make you doubt this told version of events. Cave is a very intelligent man and he would have known that (if they were written before) these lyrics would be interpreted to be about one thing and one thing only. This means that he either knew that and left them in where perhaps he would have normally edited them out so that people didn’t hear him laid so open or they were indeed written after the event and by him saying that they were written before he has acted in an self-defense manner. Both of which are understandable.
Vocally, Cave’s voice in fine form except on I Need You where he seems to be struggling to get to the notes and to fit all the words in which makes this one of the more powerful songs here, following that with the gut-punch heartbreak of Distant Sky (which features a stunning vocal by soprano Else Torp) is a powerful statement as these two combined represent the hardest part of the album to listen to but they help to add a much needed lift in positivity and light to the title track which closes the album sending us off with a glimmer of hope and consolation.
Skeleton Tree is a heavy, difficult yet beautiful trip where the silence in between songs weighs as heavy on the listener as the music. It is an artist and his friends working through the toughest of times with bravery, brutal honesty and raw emotion. It is an album that demands you listen from start to finish in a darkened room. Many people will connect with this album and it reveals the human behind the character that is Nick Cave. Emotional, stunning, dense and fractured. Skeleton Tree represents art as healing and artist as mirror.