Nick Cave takes his deepest journey yet on Skeleton Tree, a solemn fugue on death, grief, yearning and both sides of mortality’s coin.
Nick Cave’s mode, recently, has been sustained meditation. Most of the music on 2013’s Push the Sky Away is of this sort; unchanging, unmarked by rhythm or melody, a subtle sonic background for his poetry. This works, in large part because of the quality of that poetry, but also because some songs on that album are exceptions – the lush and powerful Jubilee Street, for example.
But there is no Jubilee Street on Skeleton Tree, and the meditation that The Prince of Darkness leads here is darker than anything his fans have heard in a while. Powerful, even painful, the album is a 39-minute fugue on death, grief, yearning, and both sides of mortality’s coin – but it is also a trial for the listener.
Skeleton Key, recorded only six months after the singer’s son’s fatal fall from a cliff in Brighton, and captured in stark black-and-white in the making-of doc One More Time With Feeling, has the atmosphere of Erebus. Never hesitant to reach into the depths of himself and his times, this is his deepest journey yet, his own katabasis and nekyia – Cave's journey to the underworld to speak with the dead.
The songs on Skeleton Key have the quality of a recurring dream – that is, full of Cave’s darkly sensual surrealism, but possessing also a sense of fragile fixity and irresolution. Girls are trapped in amber, unanswered phones keep ringing, and these songs, we’re told, have been spinning since 1984. “Let us sit together and wait until the moment comes,” Cave sings on the first track, Jesus Alone. But there isn’t one coming. There isn’t much dynamic or emotional range here; even when we hear rage it is rage recollected from a distance. Cave finds a difficult spot to hold and keeps it, vamping vampirically for the length of the album.
There are points when Skeleton Tree feels interminable, and the listener will strain and ache for some new violent sound to break through. By the fourth track, Magneto, the synthesizer loops and intestinal rumblings of the baritone tenor guitar have lost some of their power. Cave’s own baritone is older, weaker here than on his last release, and it’s unsettling to hear a prophet’s voice tremulous and strained – whining on I Need You; on Rings of Saturn dragging something heavy behind it, like a body underwater.
Sometimes it’s surprising and affecting; sometimes it feels unsuited, belying his abilities. “Nothing really matters”, stretched out over 5 minutes and 59 seconds, and delivered in that voice, sounds pretty banal. (Else Torp’s pellucid soprano on Distant Sky, then, is a splash of bright new colour.) The fifth track, Anthrocene, hints at a different register with a rustling of some reaper’s breath through the hi-hats and snare wires. It’s a welcome breath, but we’re asked, literally, to hold it. These are, as Cave tells us on the first track, songs “lodged in the throat of a mermaid.”
Skeleton Tree might be, to flip the phrase, a mile deep and an inch wide. The lyrics are often beautiful, and when he can be concrete, Cave conjures unforgettable, living images. The songs become terrible experiments in metempsychosis, with Cave, his son, his wife, archetypal characters, “the Bride of Jesus”, and a rat on a wheel all changing places, sharing bodies, touching souls. “Come as far as the edge of my blood,” he invites these spirits, as he invites the listener, “and swim.”
And then the phones, the songs, stop; the echo of Cave’s calling comes back – empty. This is a place Cave can return to, but it is not where he lives. Like Odysseus, Nick Cave belongs to the living, and though he was one of the few born to walk barefoot into hell and walk out again in patent leather shoes, he will always walk out again, until the final involuntary trip. The only way we can join him is by sharing his body, swimming in his blood. To do that, of course, we have to hold our breath.