This album is bad for your health. I know that because it’s all I’ve listened to once it was released last Friday and I’ve been nothing but melancholic since. There are a few precedents for material this mournful in popular music: Van Morrison’s ‘TB Sheets’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, David Bowie’s Blackstar: but Skeleton Tree stands almost alone as the blackest aural pit. It sits towards the top of the iTunes charts amongst Now That’s What I Call Music 94 and a dozen songs featuring Justin Bieber like a gaping wound. If none of this makes the record sound especially appealing, then I’ve captured it well: it’s not. But it’s also one of the most powerful and emotionally raw collections of music ever produced.
The cavernous nature of the songs on The Bad Seeds’ 16th album results from the tragic death of their frontman’s son, Arthur Cave, in the summer of last year. Bear in mind that Nick Cave was already considered one of the darkest musicians in rock music, creator of such dirges as Your Funeral… My Trial, Boatman’s Call and Murder Ballads, and that’s how you end up with Skeleton Tree. The music was debuted in One More Time With Feeling, a brilliant documentary film released for one night the evening before the album’s release which captured the making of the album. It deserves an essay of its own, but crucially it revealed that all but two of the songs on Skeleton Tree were written before his son fell to his death. Regardless, Cave professes that a little of Arthur is in every song, and that the music would never have been produced this way if what happened, hadn’t.
As with Bowie’s Blackstar earlier this year (experienced for the first time by many knowing that the songs were written shortly before his death), the question is begged whether the impact of the music comes predominantly from it’s tragic context, or if the songs would be as stunning without knowledge of it. Obviously nobody can answer that question, but the answer is probably that it wouldn’t. Cave’s other great albums have all been admirable for their finely crafted song-writing: they often came with a drug-addled slosh and sinister clatter, but they were carefully constructed and purposeful nonetheless.
Skeleton Tree is far less polished: the songs sound gutted, hollowed out, some like they barely exist at all. You can imagine the devastating lilting melodies of ‘Girl In Amber’ being replaced by a full-choir on any other album: but here they’re sung imperfectly by members of a band and imbedded as if on a loop. Opener ‘Jesus Alone’ rides on synth lines and a thick wave of white noise. ‘Magneto’ and ‘Anthrocene’ barely have composition at all: warbling bass and quickly-tapped percussion exist amongst ambient soundscapes, held together by Nick Cave’s slowly failing voice. On the LP he sounds defeated, often barely singing at all. On ‘Rings Of Saturn’ he engages in beat-poetry, while on the crushing ‘I Need You’ he pushes himself to the very edges of his limited range, until it sounds like he may crack at any moment.
The success of the album instead relies on the power of Nick Cave’s performance and poetry. ‘Anthrocene’ is the only song on the LP which doesn’t hit hard because it combines both a stripped back instrumental with his most obtuse and least striking lyrics. This isn’t a problem elsewhere. ‘Jesus Alone’ has been remarked upon for how immediately it addresses the death of his son, opening with “you fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur”, and throughout the record the most impactful moments are those which skirt closest to the reality of his situation. On the stunning ‘Girl In Amber’ he croons that “I used to think that when you died you kind of wondered the world in a slumber into you crumbled and were absorbed into the Earth… well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more”. His cries on ‘I Need You’, the album’s boldest moment and its most powerful, that “nothing really matters, when the one you love is gone” sends shivers down the spine.
The album isn’t without beauty however. Dreary lead-single ‘Jesus Alone’ was deceptive: mostly the harrow of the music through other means. Cave’s words are one, but so are the wilting vocal melodies that run through the album and the stunning guest appearance of soprano Else Torpe on ‘Distant Sky’. This song, and the closing words of ‘Skeleton Tree’ that “it’s alright now” almost offer hope: instances made all the more beautiful by the darkness surrounding them. ‘Rings Of Saturn’, another of the LP’s best songs, is a gorgeous tribute to the resilience of his wife, Susie Bick.
In One More Time With Feeling Cave talks about going through an event so catastrophic that you change as a person almost instantaneously: you’re in the same body, but you’ll never be the same. Songs like ‘Rings Of Saturn’ evidence the extent to which this is true to these new songs also. They seem to come from the same narrative-free place as previous album Push The Sky Away, but for the first time Cave isn’t alluding to a mysterious enchantress, but his actual wife. He refers to supermarket queues and 1984, the release of the Bad Seeds’ first record. Many of his albums have seemed intimate, but nothing gets more personal than this. It reveals the power of the lyrics from ‘Magneto’ that was used as the film’s title: “and one more time with feeling”. It seems everything Nick Cave felt before the death of his son pales in comparison now, just as so many fantastic records released this year seem so inconsequential in the face of such bravery and emotional expression. Skeleton Tree is destined to become an iconic album, and perhaps an intimidating one, that does as art so rarely does; which is to capture the pain of its creator’s very soul.
Theodore J. Inscoe