Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Skeleton Tree (2016)

BAd Seed ltd.

                Death is not a new concept for Nick Cave to address in his music. His 1996 album, Murder Ballads, was filled with tales of either committing murder or being murder, his song “The Mercy Seat” was a masterpiece about the death penalty, and various songs throughout his career have dealt with death. But, they’ve done so somewhat abstractly and almost always the death has been fictional. When Cave’s son, Arthur, fell to his death on July 14, 2015 that distance disappeared. Never having been one to speak about his personal life in the media, we were all left largely in the dark about this impacted him. His music had been an outlet for his personal life before, for example when he seemingly touched on his relationship with PJ Harvey dissolving on the 1997 release The Boatman’s Call. This however, was something completely different.

Musically, the album is extremely subdued and sparse which adds to the overall mood of the album. It’s also a direction the band had been heading since Mick Harvey parted ways with the band in 2009 after over thirty years of playing with Cave. In his absence, Warren Ellis has taken on the role of Cave’s primary co-songwriter and on this album it pays off in dividends. This album, unlike any Nick Cave album before it, doesn’t utilize loud guitars or find piano melodies at the forefront of the sound. Instead, the music utilizes soft piano, synthesizer, drum loops, percussion, and traditional bass and drums to create what is essentially a soundscape for Cave’s vocals. This is a subdued version of The Swan, Suicide being played by a full orchestra, or a less experimental version of Scott Walker’s solo material. In the past, Bad Seed’s albums had featured lush instrumentation or post-punk blues that caught your attention as much as Nick Cave’s vocals. This time, the music is just a foundation for the vocals and lyrics and it serves that purpose perfectly.

“Jesus Alone” opens the album with the lyrics, “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur.” While most stories state this song was written prior to his son’s death, it’s hard for one not to make the connection that this song likely became something more in the past year. With a refrain of, “With my voice I am calling you,” followed later in the song by “Let us sit together in the dark until the moment comes,” everything about this song is tragedy occurring and then sitting and waiting to see what comes next.

The next track, “Rings of Saturn,” while never explicitly dealing with death touches on being trapped in the wake of loss with another person beautifully, “And I'm breathing deep and I'm there and I'm also not there and spurting ink over the sheets but she remains, completely unexplained. Or maybe I'm just too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain. I thought slavery had been abolished, how come it's gone and reared its ugly head again?” I may be projecting my own feelings after losing people close to me, unexpectedly, in recent years. But, this sums up those initial feelings of loss perfectly you’re attached to grief and you don’t know who or how to articulate it to and because of that you keep working with it but find yourself unable to escape it.

Later on “Magneto,” Cave delves even deeper into the all-encompassing feeling grief he felt, with lines like “I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl,” which creates such a powerful image of a man who has always appeared well kept and stoic publicly being absolutely defenseless against the feelings that had stricken him. Later, Cave drives this home even further when he sings, “I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” and captures the inescapable nature of the deepest kind of grief.

On “I Need You,” Cave almost sounds like he consoling his wife, with mentions of a red dress, the night they crashed together, and the constant refrain of “I need you.” Perhaps, if not written about an attempt to console her, rather a plea or prayer that she too doesn’t leave him because at the moment he is weak and needs her to be strong for him. So he can, in turn, be strong for her. The song is also as close as Cave’s voice comes to sounding like he was weeping in the vocal booth which adds another layer of sadness to this ode to the codependency of loss.

“Distant Sky” is where the album shifts, from one of pure grief and loss to one of recognizing you still have to live afterwards. In a mark of, perhaps unintentional, genius this shift does not take place at the hands of Nick Cave. But, rather through the voice of Else Torp singing, “Let us go now, my darling companion, set out for the distant skies. See the sun, see it rising. See it rising, rising in your eyes.” In that moment, the mood of the album begins to change leading into the final track.

Album closer, “Skeleton Tree,” is filled with the monotony of life. A television plays and the sun rises and Cave laments that “nothing is free.” However the songs closes with a refrain of, “and it’s alright now.” This refocuses the way that word is frequently understood in Western culture, where generally doing alright is a substitute for good. In this instance though, you get the sense that even though acceptance has occurred and life is moving ahead. The best Nick Cave can ever hope to be again is just alright. And even at its most optimistic, the album still is a reflection of the nature of true tragedy.

As previously stated, the music on this album is not meant to catch your attention but only set a mood and it does so successfully. With a run time of just under forty minutes over the course of eight tracks, it certainly isn’t the magnum opus some of the Bad Seeds previous efforts have been. But, it does not need to be because the impact every song has is so deep. From the first note to the last, you’re transported back to a time you lost someone close to you and then retrace the path you traveled as you dealt with it. I doubt this album inspires anyone to pick up a guitar or start a band and the experience it details is too personal to inspire other bands to make a similar album. But, if this isn’t a masterpiece … I don’t know what it is.