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People die in Nick Cave songs. They get wiped out in floods, zapped in electric chairs, and mowed down en masse in saloon shoot-outs. For Cave, death serves as both a dramatic and rhetorical device—it’s great theater, but it’s also swift justice for those who have done wrong, be it in the eyes of a lover or the Lord. As I once heard him quip in concert: “This next one’s a morality tale… they’re all morality tales, really. It’s what I do.”
But despite amassing a songbook that needs its own morgue, on their 16th album together, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds must contend with something that is not so easily depicted: the sound of mourning. In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur—one of his twin sons with wife Susie Bick—died when he accidentally fell from a cliff near the family’s current home in Brighton, England. The writing and recording of Skeleton Tree had commenced before the tragic incident, but the album was completed in its aftermath, and its specter hangs over it like a black fog.
This is a record that exists in the headspace and guts of someone who’s endured an unspeakable, inconsolable trauma. And though the songs are not explicitly about Arthur they are uncannily about coming to terms with loss and the realization that things will never be the same again. As if to reinforce Skeleton Tree’s therapeutic quality, the notoriously taciturn Cave opened the studio door to director Andrew Dominik, who documented the album’s completion—in 3D, no less—for the companion film One More Time With Feeling. It’s almost as if by thrusting himself into the spotlight during his darkest hour, Cave was issuing a form of karmic payback, penance for the pain and reckoning he’s inflicted on so many characters in his songs.
If you try to listen to Skeleton Tree removed from its somber context, the album feels very much like a natural step from 2013’s Push the Sky Away, whose premium on disquieting, ambient textures and wandering-mind lyricism now seems like less like a momentary detour than the gateway into an intriguing new phase for the Bad Seeds. But where that record rallied for show-stopping epics like “Jubilee Street” and “Higgs Boson Blues,” Skeleton Tree’s drones and jitters offer no such moments of release. The skies, seas, and mermaids that previously dominated Cave’s thoughts are still very much present here. But on the opening “Jesus Alone,” he’s wading deeper into the chop, the safety of the shoreline fading further out of view as he gets swept up by pattering drum drifts, humming organs, and swelling orchestration. The song was among the first Cave wrote for the record, yet its opening image—“You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”—feels unbearably prescient. It isn’t so much about the finality of death as the ambiguity of the afterlife: Cave’s orator welcomes a litany of souls into purgatory, but his stern proclamation—“With my voice, I am calling you”—makes it unclear whether they’ll be redeemed in heaven or damned to hell.
This great unknowing serves as the album’s guiding principle. In Cave’s wounded voice, you hear him grapple in real-time with the incidental prophecies of his lyrics and his need to get the job done. In one of the album’s most harrowing moments, he closes the bleak, grief-stricken ballad “Girl in Amber” by repeating the words, “Don’t touch me,” as if a consoling hug would only exacerbate the pain. Not every song is infused with such omens, but their restlessness is emblematic of the album’s fraught recording process. By Bad Seeds’ standards, “Rings of Saturn” is practically a chillwave song, its dusty drum loop smothered in a soft-focus synth gauze. But Cave’s numbed, sing-speak delivery is laid bare above the smooth texture—not even a cooing chorus of millennial whoops can rouse him. And as surprising as it is to hear a dogged non-conformist like Cave embrace some au courant pop device, here it functions as a faded reminder of a more carefree time—like how, in our most helpless moments, a sentimental song can turn you into a mess.
“Rings of Saturn” is one of several tracks on Skeleton Tree where Cave sings about or through an enigmatic female character. Like one of those “Sopranos” episodes where Tony is trapped in his dreams, nothing makes sense on the surface, but every hallucinatory image and mysterious gesture is loaded with circuitous significance. The “woman in a yellow dress surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds” awaiting her call to the pearly gates in “Jesus Alone” could very well be the one at the center of “Magneto,” whose quivering atmospherics and panting delivery suggest a goth Astral Weeks. “It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus,” Cave intones, before blithely revealing, “The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues.” But that prosaic setting is revisited from a different vantage in the parched-throat synth-pop serenade “I Need You,” where the crestfallen narrator sings, “I saw you standing there in the supermarket with your red dress, falling, and your eyes are to the ground,” as if observing a woman he once loved but no longer recognizes in her current distressed state.
And yet even the relentless ache of “I Need You”—the closest Cave has come to actually crying on record—hardly prepares you for a pair of closing tracks that will reduce the most hardened hearts to puddles. “Distant Sky” may initially come on like a simple invitation to escape (“Let us go now, my one true love/Call the gasman, cut the power off!”), but once the divine Danish vocalist Else Torp emerges, the song elevates to a form of secular last rites. Musically, “Distant Sky” is all soothing organ tones and celestial orchestration, but the song’s weightlessness is utterly crushing, as Cave crystallizes the mood of Skeleton Tree in one trembling, devastating line: “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.”
By contrast, the lilting gospel sway of the final title track feels more earthbound. It’s an attempt to step out of the void and reconnect with the waking world while recognizing that grieving doesn’t happen on a standard timeline—you don’t just hole yourself up for three months of weeping and then emerge fully recovered. Grief is a wraith of love that haunts your soul, emerging when you least expect it from the most mundane triggers and surroundings. “I call out, right across the sea,” Cave sings, “but the echo comes back empty.” However, the darkness has at least acquired enough definition for Cave to make out a path forward. The last line Cave sings on the album is “It’s all right now,” less a declaration of closure than an acceptance it may never come.Share