Last week saw the release of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree. Although work began on the album in late 2014 at Retreat Studios in Brighton, it would be the events of mid 2015 that would change the course of the album entirely.
In July of 2015, Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, fell to his death from a cliff near the family’s home in Brighton. As expected, anything music related was put on hold, the singer and band eventually returning to the studio, this time La Frette Studios in France, to complete the album in late 2015. Self-produced, the eight tracks are musically sparse, emotionally raw, and at times painfully sad.
Prior to the album’s release, the songs were premiered in the film One More Time With Feeling, directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). The film was originally intended to be a purely performance based concept, however it evolved into something much more, Cave feeling the need to explore and explain to fans the tragedy and trauma that occurred, and how it affected the writing and recording of Skeleton Tree.
The album begins with ‘Jesus Alone,’ and it is classic Nick Cave, both musically and lyrically, containing as much heartache as it does beauty. Like much of the album, the sparse piano provides much of the melody, long time musical collaborator Warren Ellis creating an eerie low drone with loops and effects pedals.
A small string section builds tension and provides melodic accents, the tempo unrecognisable for much of the song. The chorus provides a release, the piano briefly settles, along with a pleading Cave singing “With my voice, I am calling you.”
Lyrically, ‘Jesus Alone’ isn’t autobiographical, but rather a narration of cast of characters, most of them facing a crisis of faith, a theme that is repeated throughout the album. It still heavily influenced by the singer’s trauma however, the opening line is particularly poignant. “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the Riverina.”
Skeleton Tree is at times pretty heavy going; the middle of the album feels largely improvised, with the music often lacking any real semblance of tempo. For much of the time Cave sounds more like he is reciting poetry rather than singing, his phrasing fluid and often with little regard for what would be considered ‘normal’ song structures.
‘Girl In Amber’ is one such song, opening with sparse angelic piano, accompanied by the ever-present synth. It sounds like the singer is about to break down in the chorus, the lyrics mainly concerned with bleeding, later remembering earlier times with Arthur “In turn, you turn, you kneel, lace up his shoes, you little blue eyed boy, take him by his hand, go move and spinning down the hall.”
The noise returns in ‘Anthrocene,’ with percussion and drums fading in and out, sounding like a background thunderstorm. A choir provides the melody, the piano only there to mark the beginning of the next stanza, such as the heartbreaking line “All the things we love, we love, we lose.”
Whilst only a short album, the listener couldn’t be blamed for feeling the need to take a break part way through. The songs are full of tension, often devoid of intricate melody, the lyrics deeply personal and full of sorrow. Skeleton Tree is an exceptional album, but it isn’t always that easy to listen to.
It initially seems like relief is in sight, ‘I Need You’ opens with an organ line that sounds almost positive, joined by a heavily effected violin screech. The synth provides a dark and foreboding bass line, deliberately out of time with the rest of the band. The drums are constant, not only holding the song together, but the singer as well, giving Cave some rhythm as he again sounds close to breaking.
The verse is based around the repeated line “Nothing really matters”, whilst the chorus features some wonderful backing harmonies, providing the light to Cave’s intense pleading and almost tearful repetition of the songs title.
It is a song full of pain, the vocal melody sounds improvised, a priority placed on getting the words out over any consistent phrasing. ‘I Need You’ is one of the standout tracks, and represents a turning point on the album, the pain is there, but there is less confusion, perhaps even a level of acceptance.
‘Distant Sky’ is simply beautiful, and unexpected, sounding more like a hymn or lullaby. The organ gives it a gospel quality, the vocals providing most of the forward momentum. Featuring Danish singer Else Torp, the two vocalist exchange versus, Torp’s delivery succinct and clean, contrasting Cave’s usual drawl, a surprising change of pace. It is truly beautiful however, an angelic lullaby, full of lush strings, and by this stage on the album a welcome change to what has preceded it.
Lyrically it seems to be a farewell, saying goodbye to Arthur, but also asking him to let them go. Cave opens the first verse with “Let us go now, my one true love”, Torp in response “Let us go now, my darling companion, set out for distant skies, see the sun, see it rising… rising in your eyes.” Cave blurs the line between gods, dreams, and his lost son with the lyric “They told us our gods would outlive us, they told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
The exceptional title track closes the album, opening with “Sunday morning, skeleton tree, nothing is for free.” The drums have finally found a beat, the piano melody is more what we would expect from a Nick Cave song, the ever present synth slightly less foreboding. The lyrics are still dark, but have found a sense of resolve, matching the more upbeat music.
A choir of voices join in to sing the repeated closing line “I call out, I call out, nothing is for free, and it’s, alright now, and it’s, alright now.” It sounds like a statement, a sense of resolve, a conviction that things will eventually be okay. As the song fades out, the main voice we hear apart from Cave’s is a timid female voice, almost as if husband and wife are singing together, reassuring each other that it is, or at least will be, alright.
Skeleton Tree is an album where Nick Cave takes the listener on a journey with him, down the the depths of pain and despair, but eventually finding a way through and reaching some sort of resolution. By the end there seems to be a newly found sense of hope, again finding some sunshine. As Cave states in One More Time With Feeling, he and wife Suzie eventually made the conscious decision to allow themselves to be happy again.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have produced a beautiful work of art – truly magnificent, in spite of the sadness and pain.