Review | Nick Cave bares his soul on the moving Skeleton Tree
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
[Bad Seed Ltd.]
“If you wanna leave, don’t breathe.”
What kind of pain does the loss of a child produce, regardless of their age, let alone of one who hasn’t even reached adulthood? I’ll be honest; I couldn’t possibly know. I hope that I never do, and I wish that no one ever had to. Unfortunately, life isn’t so benevolent. What I do know is that out of it, Nick Cave, an artist who has, over a career spanning decades upon decades of work, delivered some of his finest yet by almost any set of standards.
According to the band, most of these songs had been worked on prior to the tragedy that struck his family; regardless, it is always going to be impossible to view it as unconnected or detached from the event. It’s not the way people contextualise art and it’s not the way that we take it in. Humans look for the humanity in things, and in Skeleton Tree, there is plenty of humanity to be found, almost all of it connected in some way, be it hauntingly tangential or heartbreakingly direct, to grief.
Not-quite-40-minutes-long, with a lean eight-song tracklist, Skeleton Tree continues the minimal-yet-beautiful approach to music that predecessor Push the Sky Away brought to the Bad Seeds’ canon. While many long-time fans lamented the abandonment of the narrative-driven, stygian and oft-miasmic lyrics and the brooding, swaggering music of Bad Seeds’ records of old when Push… was released, it seemed that just as many, if not more listeners, old and new, found themselves enchanted by the mysterious, enrapturing and surprisingly lush soundscape it provided.
Cave’s lyrics became more open to personal interpretation while still retaining their literary prowess that has so defined his abilities as a writer throughout his life; the music dived deeper into loops and ambience while still retaining the antique vibes of Western fantasy that the Bad Seeds are known for indulging in. Skeleton Tree shows us that, as far as the band is concerned, those new directions are ones worth diving further in, and I’m inclined to agree – these eight songs are as impactful, memorable and potent as anything the group has crafted over the years.
Fans of Cave have adored his gothic stylings and moody, introspective examinations of the darker sides in life, and Skeleton Tree seems to test their commitment to these subjects. It’s hard to think of anything the man has produced in the music world that rivals the darkness of songs like ‘Jesus Alone’ or that manage to crush the soul quite as heavily as a song like ‘Girl in Amber,’ possibly the strongest of the strangely-beautiful and powerful lot. Dropping the defence of characters, shedding the detachment of narrative and baring his soul without artifice in front of it to protect it,
Cave’s lyrics on Skeleton Tree pull back the curtain on a famously-mythological master of his craft like never before. It’s not to say he’s never been vulnerable in his work, but this might be the most straightforward look into the man’s eyes those of us following his career have ever gotten. None of his grief is obfuscated; none of his experience is filtered. This is a look into a man’s heart, without any walls in place – and, if they are, then the tour we are given is so authentic, so well-orchestrated, that we never manage to notice.
In 40 minutes, Cave and his cohorts weave an experience that rivals much of their career-bests, landing securely amongst their most memorable work and surpassing much of it. Plenty of fans have been quick to announce that this is their finest effort yet – I’d rather not make a quick, impulsive statement (and, in part, that’s why this review wasn’t put out the day the album was), but it’s easy to see why some are so fast to feel that way. With as long and fabled as these artists’ careers are – and, for Cave himself, a career that has cut across so many other projects and even mediums, writing novels and screenplays, working on film scores and serving as something of an alternative statesman for many – it’s hard to ever say that there is a definitive “best work.” But Skeleton Tree makes a damned-good case for being a culmination of that oeuvre, and, if nothing else, serves as a fine example of what makes the Bad Seeds’ clock tick so dependably well.
Part of what has made Cave so powerful over the years is his ability to take twisting, iconic and classic stories of gunmen, highwaymen, cowboys and thieves of old and turn them into darker, grittier tales, the romance of the American West transmuted through his stylings and lyrics into the dark, grim realities they likely (read: certainly) were. Here, Cave is doing the exact opposite: he’s taking experiences of pure darkness, utter depression, bleak grief that, had he simply released an album of pure suicide-inducing music that none could stomach but all would respect, he would not be blamed for – and instead manages to weave gorgeous, resonating pieces out of these feelings.
That’s what the greatest art can do – take the darkness, and, through the act of creation, imbue it with a shining light, radiant, warm, and connecting, even if it’s not as bright as some might hope for. Skeleton Tree lives up to its name – here we see Nick Cave with all the ornament of leaves shed, a base lain bare, and, like so many trees, what we end up seeing in this winter landscape is, simultaneously and, somehow, complimentary, haunting and beautiful. It takes harshness and makes it gentle; it takes loss and makes it creative; it takes death and breathes life; it takes a skeleton tree and makes it bloom. Listen to this album; you’ll not find anything else quite like it this year.