Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds—“Skeleton Tree”

By Emma Kelly, Feature Photo via HarryPotter.wikia

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’s sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree, opens with the track “Jesus Alone,” a brooding, droning triumph of ambient texture and swelling orchestration. Through the meandering drum drifts, throbbing organ chords, and squealing violins, Cave’s voice comes through with all the broken sincerity of an old drunk on an empty street corner in the middle of the night. The first image he depictsyou fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”would be troubling on its own, but the lyric takes on a heart-wrenching significance when put in context. On July 14, 2015, Cave’s fifteen-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a cliff close to their home in Brighton, England. Although half the album had been conceptualized before Arthur’s death, the loss shadows the album it is very much an examination of intense grief, and the shape one’s life takes around it.

Skeleton Tree is musically sparse, almost New Age-y in its arrangement, and propelled by fuzzy synth lines which juxtapose the heaviness of the lyrics with Cave’s subdued delivery. It’s a marked departure from the bluesy, theatrical inflection of  2013’s Push The Sky Away.  The second track, “Rings of Saturn,” employs a whooping chorus that would not be out of place on a millennial-era pop song, but rather than sounding gimmicky the result is something you can dance to on the first listen and cry to on the second.

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Album Art for “Skeleton Tree”

And, make no mistake, you will probably cry a few times while listening to this album.  Cave’s loss is so deep and so realized that it demands to be felt. On “Magneto,” (which features a sound that I’m convinced is someone revving a chainsaw through a puddle of mud) Cave intones, “the urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming/I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queue.” The lyric refers to an encounter Cave had in the supermarket when a stranger came up to him and expressed her condolences—it was then he realized he had become a figure of pity, as he explains during an interview in the tie-in documentary about the making of the LP,  Once More With Feeling. Then there’s “I Need You,” a soaring ethereal melody that has Cave return, for a brief moment, to the crooning vocals that made him famous, and offers up the bleak observation “nothing really matters/nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” Death is not new subject matter for Cave, but his words take on harrowing meaning here. When singing “Girl in Amber,” Cave stoically muses that “some go on, some stay behind,” before his quivering voice betrays him and he confesses “maybe I’m just too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain.”

I can’t help but wonder what Arthur, at fifteen, thought about his father’s music. When I was an exceedingly goofy and lost fifteen-year-old, I considered Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to be one of those things I had to endure for the sake of a free ride to 7-Eleven from my goth friend Alicia. As a true purist, Alicia felt that blasting Murder Ballads in her car at all times was just as essential to her lifestyle as committing entire passages of The Sandman to memory and appropriating the ankh.  I remember sitting in the passenger seat, sour cherry slurpee balanced precariously between my knees, wishing we could put on some Green Day (my favorite band at the time) or anything else loud and fast and irreverent enough to cut through the maudlin murk of a ninety-eight-pound, death-obsessed, mulleted, Australian, former heroin addict singing Southern gospel jazz-punk.

What did Arthur think? Like me, was Arthur impatient with the lurid imagery, prophetic musing, and unsettling sonic trajectories? Did he find it depressing? Make no mistake, there is beauty to be found in the work of The Bad Seeds, but it goes rarely unaccompanied by desperation, melancholy, loneliness, or hysteria. At fifteen, I was pretty sure I was invincible, and I listened to music that reflected that particular brand of adolescent bravado back to me. Life was simple, life was fun, life was eternal. There was no room in my world for Nick Cave’s darkness, nor his complexity. I’ll never have the answer to this question and, to an extent of such wretched magnitude I can’t possibly begin to imagine, neither will Nick Cave and his wife Susie Bick. Skeleton Tree, as an album and as an attempt at wrestling with such a tragedy, is heartbreaking. (Bad Seed Ltd.)

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