A work of extreme beauty whose emotional power often borders on the physical, ‘Skeleton Tree’ will richly reward those who are willing to give it repeated listens.
Let’s address the rather significant elephant in the room before we start. Clearly, it’s impossible to understand Skeleton Tree without referring to the tragic death of Nick Cave’s teenage son, Arthur, last summer when he fell off a cliff near Brighton having taken LSD. Although Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have consistently probed the most extreme depths of the human psyche throughout their spectacular 30 year career, covering everything from love, heartbreak and addiction to murder, depression and psychosis, but never has Cave had to come so directly face-to-face with his subject matter as on the band’s 16th album. Skeleton Tree is an album of raw, wrenching grief but also about the strength to carry on in the face of it.
The album has also been accompanied by the release of a documentary movie, One More Time With Feeling, whose director Andrew Dominik has suggested was a way of protecting Cave from having to talk about his family’s dreadful experiences directly. Skeleton Tree, though work on it began months before the tragedy struck, feels like a very similar exercise, in this respect, with death and loss all-pervasive but always addressed indirectly. The minimalist direction that 2013’s excellent Push The Sky Away took is explored even further this time around: tremulous flickers of instrumentation, mordant hums and growls from the bass guitar and feathery percussion form an intriguing sonic mist around the proceedings, with very little in the way of conventional rock in evidence and with Cave’s voice placed very much at front and centre of this eight-track collection.
The spooky, theremin-like sounds of the first track, ‘Jesus Alone’, is so murky that it harks all the way back to the desperate, feverish melancholia of 1986’s Your Funeral… My Trial and its nightmare-scapes guided by musical impulse and improvisation. Its very first line sees Cave appear to address the subject of his son with the couplet “you fell from the sky / crash landed in a field”, but this is as direct and autobiographical as Skeleton Tree gets. Rather, personal grief is channelled into sublime, brooding songs precisely because Cave doesn’t allow things to get mawkish or obviously sentimental – he’s far, far too brilliantly original to resort to clichés, with distress and grief referred to through allegories and elliptical lyrics doused in inventive, striking imagery. The listener is not moved to tears, but is instead stunned into silence. As such, it’s a songwriting achievement on a par with 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, arguably his finest album and one that also revolved around a very singular subject matter (the end of relationships).
‘Rings Of Saturn’ is preternaturally quiet, and redolent of the sepulchral, distant worship of his best ballads, although Cave’s vocals are closer to spoken-word, with Warren Ellis’ backing vocals supporting him in a mournful lament. The hushed piano, muted percussion and choir backing of ‘Anthrocene’ is another utterly unique moment in his discography, one of the best deep cuts he’s ever recorded. The funereal ‘Girl In Amber’ sees Cave’s vulnerabilities turned into strengths and a sense of humanity, and ‘Magneto’s ambience is so intensely quiet that you actually have to strain your ears to capture it all. These are songs designed to be listened to in absolute tranquillity, in solitude and with no distractions whatsoever. During this sequence of songs, the listener is truly in the presence of rare greatness on Skeleton Tree, the sound of one of the most distinctive songwriter in the world making arguably his most devastating work to date.
After this emotional torpor, the closing trio of tracks represent safe harbour from the storm, whose musical clarity is in stark contrast to the muddiness what has come before. Second single ‘I Need You’ sees Cave singing for the first time in a keening, desperate voice that just about keeps his emotions from overflowing (“cos nothing really matters / I’m standing in the doorway”). It’s an unbelievable track, probably the only truly cinematic moment on this otherwise intimate record, and will surely pass into the highest echelon of Cave’s repertoire.
‘Distant Sky’, featuring the guest vocals of Danish soprano Else Torp, is another strikingly beautiful moment, characterised by ringing glass harps and the faintest of string embellishments. The closing title track is similarly majestic, with Cave’s arrangements and writing leading to a sense of tenuous resolution at the end of such torment (“And I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back in, dear / That nothing is for free”).
Cave’s songwriting is as instinctive as it ever was, his writing guiding the listener, scarred but ultimately safe, to the end of a record of understated elegies. Combined with the co-release of the film, Skeleton Tree is an immortal snapshot of the redemptive power of the songwriting process itself. Musically speaking, Skeleton Tree will likely rank as one of the least accessible albums in Cave’s repertoire – both to listen to and ruminate upon – but it’s also a work of extreme beauty whose emotional power often borders on the physical, and which will richly reward those who are willing to give it repeated listens. (9/10) (Ed Biggs)
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Tags: album, Ed Biggs, George Vjestica, Jim Sclavunos, Martyn Casey, Nick Cave, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, review, Thomas Wydler, Warren Ellis
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