Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’ Review: a dark yet beautiful reflection on tragedy as only Nick Cave could produce.
Last year Nick Cave went through what any parent fears the most: the loss of a child. This happened in the midst of recording Skeleton Tree, his latest album with veteran outfit The Bad Seeds (released September 9th on Bad Seed, Ltd.). And while it’s not entirely clear which songs were finished before his gut wrenching tragedy, the album’s sense of loss is palpable.
This dark tone was to be expected: Cave has made his career with such songs, often told from other characters perspectives, with a mythical, biblical weight. But Skeleton Tree feels more personal, even if he never references his son Arthur’s tragic death directly. Not that we should’ve expected something piercingly autobiographical in the first place: Cave has never been one for maudlin sentimentality or confessionals. If anything, the album could have just as well have been called The Elephant In The Room (his new film One More Time With Feeling, also offers no easy answers). He refuses to directly engage with his pain, except for brief, devastating moments.
Kicking off with the ethereal swirl of Jesus Alone, Cave offers one of those moments, with a line that hits you straight in the gut: You fell from the sky and crash-landed in a field near the river Adur. But from there it takes a detour, chronicling the spiritual plight of several disassociated characters, yet losing none of its emotional weight.
That track is followed by Rings of Saturn, which may be the sprightliest pop confection Cave has ever delivered, even if it has the solemnity of a hymn, with Cave singing lines like This is what she does and this is what she is, which could be a simple love song, or perhaps a paean to the inner strength of his wife Susie.
Much like Cave’s stellar 2013 release Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree is an exercise in sparseness: ambient tracks like Girl in Amber have a desolate beauty punctuated by Cave’s haunted pipes and angelic backing vocals, a spoonful of sugar that takes some of the sting out of heartbreaking wordplay: I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber ’til you crumbled … Well, I don’t think that anymore.
Anthrocene is perhaps the most old-school track, with jittery percussion and plaintive piano framing Cave’s noir prose: more concerned with stoic mood than sorrow.
The same cannot be said for I Need You, one of the most moving songs on the album. While the lyrics reference Cave in love with a woman dressed in red, his line Nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone, sung in a bruised, quivering croon lend itself to something else entirely.
One thing that may surprise some listeners are the last two songs, which are contrastingly uplifting, from the gorgeously sweeping Distant Sky (featuring guest vocals from Else Torp), to the closing title track, one of the most moving and plaintive numbers Cave and his cohorts have ever concocted.
A gentle country ballad with cascading acoustics and rolling piano, it features the singer at his most relaxed and reflective. It ends with him cooing and its alright now. Which may be one of the most triumphantly brazen ways to end an album that comes from such a place of loss.
Critiquing an album like Skeleton Tree is somewhat daunting: there is no easy roadmap through grief, and we’ll never know just how personal each song truly is for Cave. There’s a certain sense of guilty voyeurism in even trying to guess. It’s simply enough to appreciate it for its beauty, and to wish (for Cave’s sake) that there was never any need for morbid speculation in the first place.
You can own Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ via Amazon below.