You may wonder if you’re able to give a record a proper chance when you know the artist has gone through the unthinkable making it. Skeleton Tree is the sixteenth studio album by the legendary Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. What makes this release notable is that it follows the tragic death of Cave’s own son. As the music world reeled in shock to the news, longtime fans could only wonder just how their hero would artistically respond, let alone if he would. A master of chronicling darker themes of the sacred mingling with the profane, Nick Cave has been enough fascinating versions of himself to evoke such a morbid curiosity amidst the distant forms of love and empathy amongst his fans.
From the demise of his endlessly influential band The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds kicked through all doors with the sick sea shanties and basement screams of 1984’s seminal debut From Her To Eternity. The swift punch from the heart of the night that defined the mad preacher and elegant outlaw of the fabled Nick Cave of the 1980s then gave way to the red waves of fever, love and violence that throbbed through much of the Bad Seeds output in the 1990s. Quiet, personal ballads would end the decade and make way for both the surreal gospel and garage grit that reminded younger audiences just who they were in fact witnessing. Yet for even the most seasoned Nick Cave fan, something very special happens upon listening to Skeleton Tree: the anticipation of that electric first listen is immediately meaningless. You become the same as someone who is hearing him for the first time.
“You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field,” he begins in opening song “Jesus Alone.” As prophetic as it may seem, for the song itself was written well before the tragedy, there is something else at work here that should remain unforgotten. Not all of this album was conceived in the wake of a recent death, but when it did occur, its identity forever changed in the face of such horror.
The songs of Skeleton Tree recently made their debut in the documentary capturing the recording of the album, One More Time With Feeling. Sprawling shots capture the band in places both before and after the terrible event, said to have taken place during the later stages of recording. Yet even if one has seen this film, the album’s opening of “Jesus Alone” can hardly be anticipated. With no build, fade or warning, we are plunged immediately into an intense new world that sits within a menacing balance of harsh, orchestral rises and electronic drops, bubbling and looming like the sounds of dark whales deep beneath the pitch of night. It is an otherworldly combination of archaic and futuristic sounds that simply takes us to a time that could only be right now.
Lyrically, many a listener may be tempted to think that, within in the shadow of all that has occurred, Cave’s songs will specifically be about him as voiced through him. But as “Jesus Alone” moves to the second track, “Rings of Saturn,” we remember that Cave has almost always used characters to speak through, characters now in league with the increasingly surreal approach that he’s adopted over the recent years. “Rings Of Saturn” only adds to this, both returning the familiar listener and enlightening the new one to Cave’s finesse as a spoken word poet. Over hazy organs that evoke spirit, as opposed to church, the especially bare male backup vocals establish another facet of Skeleton Tree: they preferred to finish it as opposed to perfecting it.
If the events surrounding a piece of art force its maker to allow its imperfections to remain in the effort to see it completed, Skeleton Tree carries the best result of this, which is the benefit of existing so purely within the emotion that flaws become language. On first listen the album itself proceeds to evolve as a series of confusing and beautiful contradictions: raw, yet full; direct, yet abstract; gentle, yet unhinged. One uniform quality that reveals itself between the songs is that each swells and fills the once-empty space in the matter of an instant upon beginning. Just the same, they fade out in such an immediate manner that it can be surprising, almost as if it were a demo rather than a completed song. However, therein lies the world of this record. Things begin and end without warning. Fictional characters spanning time and place dance like ghosts with the author, who perhaps dances with you. And as authorship goes, Nick Cave is, above anything else, a master of creating worlds.
So sonically unexpected are the first two tracks that the third, “Girl In Amber,” almost nudges one on the shoulder that this indeed is a sad album about a very real loss. With a first verse centered on visions of this girl in amber and a second beginning with a little blue-eyed boy, one gets a sense that the importance is not so much on a reporting of events, but rather of the feelings they evoke. It’s natural to wonder if the boy is his, but it becomes even more natural not to care. In the world of Skeleton Tree, this is the skeleton key. One has to remember how much he and his friends are already giving us. Our comfort, however, is not their immediate goal. The tone of the album shifts drastically to quiet terror as “Magneto” confesses a dizzying haunt of scenes and physical reactions, hunched over and rumbling in the mysterious shout of chaos. It has a low, distorted bass penetrating the high feedback and piano, recalling later songs of The Birthday Party, such as “Wild World,” while at the same time swaying within the slow Brighton-informed beauty of coastal wind in 2013’s Push the Sky Away.
With each carrying such a unique self-contained diversity, the songs on Skeleton Tree all display a treat always waiting on a Bad Seeds album, which is just how the Bad Seeds themselves will contribute to the wild painting swirling in the listener’s mind. In Once More With Feeling, we watch Cave and company singing the songs live and seldom going back to do multiple takes, working within the Neil Young school of capturing a moment right then and there, flaws and hiccups be damned. What only the album will reveal, however, is how much space is given to the effects, synths, and percussion; all quite unexpectedly are allowed to have equal footing with the core vocal and melody on the part of Cave.
In other words, you don’t expect, even after the brilliant capture of them within Once More With Feeling, how utterly massive these songs ultimately are on Skeleton Tree. The percussive swells of longtime members Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos pound within the mysterious textures of this era’s main creative foil Warren Ellis, while the guitar of comparatively newer George Vjestica and bass of stalwart Martyn Casey reign the production in back down to Earth, where only the living and the living alone get to stay.
What may become the unsung strength of Skeleton Tree lost in our attention to the sentiment is how much of a freeform aspect the Bad Seeds as a band take on. “Anthrocene” is perhaps the strongest example, beginning with a strange, fast-paced beat that rushes beneath a canopy of feedback to a building drone note. As the drums lead the song through unchained crescendos and pullbacks, piano chords speckle the fuming pulse beneath a song that ends with lines, “And brace yourself.” Another of Skeleton Tree‘s gifts is its ability to then move so effortlessly back into a form of structure and directness. The following song, “I Need You,” is much simpler than any it has so far followed, honing specifically towards an effort to hold it all together with somebody. It’s almost as if the sharp wave of realization that we’re indeed still living and thus must figure out a way to live became sound itself. And within these yearning chords, lyrical sensations of a life-changing night permeate the simple pleas of not turning away, not after all of this, even in the middle of the merciless banalities of a life that must continue on.
The final two songs continue in this march of finality towards those things in existence we’re not permitted to argue. The quiet hymn of “Distant Sky” maintains the heartfelt dialogue of seeking peace started in “I Need You,” with Cave and distinguished guest vocalist Else Torp sharing verses like a call and response to heaven itself – that is, even if heaven is neither acknowledged nor acknowledges. Again, this is a record that may wish, down deep, to know more of heaven, but instead has only been abandoned and left to ponder life below it. It pulls no punches in saying so, for even here in the serenity of “Distant Sky” come the words “They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied”. Yet even on these dark periods on Earth, the biblical and terrifying revelries of past Nick Cave albums, the storms of “Tupelo,” debauch of “Papa Won’t Leave You Henry,” and fury of “Stagger Lee,” Cave is a writer who remains most capable of allowing patches of light to come through the clouds.
The album ends with the song entitled “Skeleton Tree,” which quietly spreads its beginning notes of keyboards and acoustic guitar over a cathartic wash of resolution. And it does so even if that resolution is one that has to live without the light it yearns to see once again. For this is the moment that we’ve forgotten to expect or approach. When, in the midst of agony, do we ever see the other side of it? And when we do, is it ever what we could have promised ourselves? Is it so rewarding? No, or certainly in no way we could ever think. But it’s more peaceful, if at least for this moment. “And it’s all right, now,” Cave and company sing in unison as the final notes close into the quick fades that mark each song on Skeleton Tree. And there is the album’s final silence, leaving all tender and dazed. Take a breath. Lean back before the breeze. Yet remember that while this is an amazing song at the end of an amazing album, just as Cave sings in the refrain, perhaps not only for himself but for all of us, “Nothing is for free.”
“Let us sit together in the dark until the moment comes,” Cave declares towards the end of “Jesus Alone.” And as Skeleton Tree closes, that moment surely does. However, this should be looked at as ultimately a moment for the rest of us, as opposed to the author who lived it. For even if art is allowed to give us what we expect, is life ever so graceful? With that, I conclude with a closing prayer: may this be enough. May we be satisfied with what this man has allowed us and may we, in turn, allow him and his loved ones humanity.