Albums of 2016 (#6): Nick Cave – Skeleton Tree
Death is a familiar character in Nick Cave’s songbook, but Skeleton Tree, his 16th studio album with The Bad Seeds, carries a particularly tragic spectre
In July 2015, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died when he accidentally fell from a cliff in the family's home town of Brighton. The group had reportedly commenced writing and recording prior to the incident, but the album was completed in its wake.
There's a strong thematic and stylistic continuation between Skeleton Tree and 2013's atmospheric Push the Sky Away. But where the latter had the gentle Jubilee Street for melodic respite, or the rumbling, wry Higgs Boson Blues to soften the album's sparser moments, there's little humour to be found on Skeleton Tree. Gone are the ruminations on science, religion, Robert Johnson and Hannah Montana. It's an intensely personal record – the sound of one man standing face to face with his greatest fears.
With its eerie whistle, Jesus Alone opens the album with the line 'You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field' – that stomach-jolting sensation becomes Skeleton Tree's close companion. A slow creep of electronic wobbles and funereal harmonies, the first track instills a pervading unease that cloaks the record from start to finish.
As with much of Push the Sky Away, Rings of Saturn sees The Bad Seeds taking another measured step away from their rock roots, embracing a textured blanket of synth blips and drum loops. There's none of Cave's trademark fire and brimstone to be found though – instead, it's a spoken word stream of consciousness that reflects a state of bewilderment and confusion: 'Upside down and inside out and on all eights / You're like a funnel-web / Like a black fly on the ceiling.'
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the album is Girl in Amber, a sorrowful exhalation from a mind frozen by grief. 'Some go and some stay behind / Some never move at all,' Cave near-whispers over hesitant keys, with the same emotional crossover appeal that anchors Into My Arms, his classic 1997 paean to broken faith. On the trembling I Need You, he sounds at the verge of breaking point as he repeats, 'Nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.' Though I Need You – and many of Skeleton Tree's songs – speak, in Cave's trademark style, to ambigous unnamed characters, there's an emotional gravitas that cuts to the core of every single track here.
By the time you reach the heartbreaking penultimate track Distant Sky, illuminated by heavenly vocals by Danish vocalist Else Torp, with its lament that 'they told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied,' it’s a wonder we’re still dry-eyed.
In One More Time With Feeling, the companion film to the album, Cave discourages viewers from drawing distinct parallels between his son's death and the content of the album. However closely you choose to link the former to the latter, Skeleton Tree remains a harrowing, visceral journey through grief, sorrow and loss. Perhaps in inviting director Andrew Dominik to document the album’s completion, Cave was attempting a kind of catharsis, by responding in the best way he knows how – by making art of life.