We approach the sixteenth record from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with a degree of trepidation, three years removed from 2013’s brash, vibrant and energetic Push The Sky Away. While Skeleton Tree largely works as a tonal progression; based as it is heavily on the glitchy loops of Warren Ellis, in reality all has changed utterly in the intervening years. This is a long player centred largely on slow, dense drones and anguished ruminating on spirituality, mortality and helplessness.
Throughout his career, Cave has toyed with biblical and spiritual imagery, doomsday scenarios and black humour. There’s death as drama, and death as comedy but never until now death as a crushing reality – here is a mournful, wounded Cave in the horrific aftermath of the passing of his fifteen year old son, Arthur in July 2015.
You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur
Album opener ‘Jesus Alone’ originates from prior to the events that changed the creation of this LP irrevocably, yet there is a weight to the backing track that serves as a firm primer and scene setter for what is to come. Any attempts to disentangle the timeline of the writing of the record are completely redundant as throughout, one is reminded of what has transpired. Cave instantly and extensively grapples with the notion of spirituality as he intones “With my voice I am calling you”. He has oft referred to the notion of spirituality, depicting characters seeking redemption or salvation but here it is abundantly clear that for him and those close to him, the idea of religion is in no way a comfort: “You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now,” he challenges.” “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?”
I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more
With ‘Girl in Amber’, the sheer devastation and gravity of the scenario at play truly hits home. Cave instinctively blurts out verse lyrics – as though the majority of each line is being improvised, a degree of clarity being found as each phrase draws to a close. There’s a tremor to the vocal and a contrasting strength and richness to the backing vocals. He presents small reminisces – tying the laces of a “little blue eyed boy” – and contrasts with the devastation that has followed – the phone doesn’t ring any more – all accompanied by an arrangement that is beautiful in a hesitant yet disarming way.
Oh the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming
This record is a journey that is never easy, but feels necessary, one that is not rich in terms of storytelling but hugely so in terms of weight of experience, of angst, of despair. Here, Cave’s customary bravado is replaced by a muted defiance. Where Push The Sky Away was dark, Skeleton Tree is jet black; torment and tumult at every turn as Cave grasps for an outlet to such an extent that it feels imperative that these raw and apparently ever evolving sketches over a blurry, improvisational template are heard. The backing of The Bad Seeds is, as ever, exquisitely judged. It is sparse in a way that feels apt, essential even.
Nothing really matters/I thought that I knew better
The fulcrum around which this record turns is the closing three tracks. ‘I Need You’ is punishingly impactful, as drums are brought to the foreground for a rare sojourn. Cave wields his shattered croon to devastating effect, and it culminates in a crushing “I Need You” at the end of each verse, as the collective power of the backing vocals from The Bad Seeds envelop those of Cave. It’s a powerful representation of the sympathetic, supportive approach manifest in the arrangement of the record, and also apparent on-screen throughout One More Time With Feeling.
Following the increasingly dark first half of the LP, the arrangements grow progressively richer and occasionally flecked with hope – never more so than on ‘Distant Sky’. There’s a jarring sweetness to its hook, sung by Danish soprano Else Torp that compounds the sense of poignancy that weighs heavily for the duration of the record. Cave contrasts Torp’s delivery with a plaintive, weary tone – again quizzical of spirituality (“They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied”), and consistently heart rending (“Soon the children will be rising/This is not for our eyes”).
I call out/Right across the sea/But the echo comes back empty
Skeleton Tree and companion film One More Time With Feeling confirm that Cave has been changed, irrevocably by recent terrible events. Cave speaks in One More Time… of how he doesn’t believe in narrative any longer, having always been synonymous with it, of a trauma so great that there’s no imaginative room around it; and this all tallies with the unceremonious directness inherent throughout.
The majority of the vocals on this record are coming from a different, damaged place. Here, we are dealing with the lesser-seen introverted Nick Cave. Often a deeply unsettling and upsetting listen, Skeleton Tree is an LP that weighs heavier on each repeat and feels dense and claustrophobic in terms of arrangement and delivery but occasionally softened by unexpectedly pretty, redemptive passages. The title track once more plumbs the depth of despair yet ends on a cathartic note with the “And It’s Alright Now” coda.
Skeleton Tree is concise, direct and at all times a deeply moving yet essential and enriching listen, without question one of the best records of 2016.