Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Skeleton Key
‘One more time with feeling’
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 16th studio album Skeleton tree transports its listeners into an emotional space that is inescapable by design. Immersing us in its tragedy and grief, these themes dominate the course of the album letting up intermittently, for a sliver of optimism. But even these are not enough to alleviate the mood. A harrowing wail and beauty juxtaposed next to one another, it carries a resonance on first listen that demands attention with its intrinsic insight into one of Cave’s most emotionally drenched albums of his career. This by no means makes it an easy listen, but that is not the point. The overwhelming tragedy surrounding Cave’s personal life, with the death of his 15-year old son Arthur occurring during the sessions in 2015 in Caves hometown of Brighton. It seems that this has dominated the perception of this album, from its inception, it could be seen as an indirect public ode to this very personal loss, as these reverberations are felt throughout. The result is Cave working through his loss in a search for an unquenchable solace though the process of making art as a necessary familiarity.
‘It’s our bodies that fall when they try to rise’
Nick Cave has always flirted with death in his songs. A long running trope that holds precedent over his wordplay, often carried with a skewed level of irony and symbolistic nature. Cave has touched upon these, but the sincerity by which Skeleton Tree is constructed gives a glimpse into an aspect of life that no one should experience. This is where the fictitious elements of Caves previous work gives way to a piece that appears to be entrenched in a stark reality, but is still presented from the perspective of characters in order to carry his message.
Another aspect is the instrumental work of the Bad Seeds that accompanies Cave’s vocals. Expounding on the themes of minimalist composition that the Bad Seeds explored with 2013’s Push the Sky Away, and utilising loops of synth and orchestral swells, with lone piano notes creating a backdrop of ambience. Push The Sky Away, acts as a template, with every new turn or extra layer applied with such care and precision to complement the songs, but maintaining a uniform sparseness, harnessing aspects of the early bad seed manifesto, that functions off a minimalist ideal with delta blues/post punk fusion that inspired From Her To Eternity and The Firstborn is Dead. If it resembles anything it’s the haunting and remarkable Stranger Than Kindness with throbbing bass and droning instrumentation, harnessing the influence of his earlier material with a more matured take. All of this is created to punctuate atmosphere, perfectly blending the voice and instrumental. These sparse arrangements act as a sinkhole into Cave’s subdued and wounded vocals to only further exasperate the experience, by appearing so exposed and vulnerable. Although Cave professes to have written the lyrics before his son’s death, it can’t be helped to see the lyrics as a prophetic statement on these events, this is also made mention of in Mark Mordue’s Guardian article; Nick Cave: One More Time With Feeling, Skeleton Tree and the power and language of grief.
Even though the album was completed after this tragic incident, it captures a snapshot of the mourning process, even if there is no direct reference in the songs save for a few minor alterations to the lyrics before completion. This personal tragedy forms an air that encases all of the songs, creating an eerie mesh of coincidences, with opening lines such as ‘[y]ou fell from the sky and crash landed in a field’ from the opening track ‘Jesus Alone’. This presents startling resemblances to factual events, pulling the listener into a position of morbid voyeurism and inviting the listener to witness such tragedy in a very open medium.
‘And some people say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll’
Within the last three tracks the fragility of life is poignantly driven home. ‘I Need You’ baits a sense that Cave is near breaking point with blunt lyrics such as ‘[n]othing really matters when the one you love is gone’. Despite the indirect nature, by using a character perspective recalling a woman in a red dress, it is apparent that this is a fractured narrator pulling you into his void. The listener becomes a trespasser on his despair, due to this delivery, almost quivering and daring to falter at any point. The track is accompanied by a shoegaze synth and offset jazz beat. meshing to create a perfect atmosphere for Cave’s lyrical wanderings.
The success of Skeleton Tree is its ability to reflect on aspects of ourselves and the way the listener can interpret the nature of the musical package as a whole. Every word carries a great weight. ‘Distant Sky’ is another track steeped in emotion from start to finish, featuring Danish soprano Else Torp, one of the most successful duets of Caves career.
‘They told us our dreams would outlive us/[t]hey told us our Gods would outlive us but they lied’.
It’s truly a reflective piece that pulls the last drops of emotion you can muster before the title track, which is arguably the most upbeat song on the album, closes the experience by alleviating the sombre tones to make way for an optimism that still has traces of melancholy. ‘And I called out/ Nothing is for free’. The denouement recounts the album as a vessel, travelling the process of dealing with the grief. The closing lines, ‘[a]nd it’s alright now’, repeated over and over, give the sense of a self-mantra and closure to an overall remarkable experience and a highlight of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds extensive career.
This is an album defined by its beauty. The way Cave portrays and channels grief, in arguably one of the sincerest and expressive pieces of his discography, through this marred narrator, forces Cave to somewhat lose the narrative and character driven lyricism for a more insightful, personal and inflective landscape. It feels as if he is trying to exonerate himself of his grief, laying himself bare, his voice breaking as he is mourning with each line, wrenching every note, providing a truly beautiful and tasteful ode to loss, grief and personal tragedy.
I used to think that when you died, you kind of wandered the world/ In a slumber till you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/ Well, I don’t think that any more