Nick Cave writes about death. He always has done. Death, destruction and mortality are ongoing themes across the decades of his work. Yet here in Skeleton Tree there is something more. Although all but one of the songs were written before the loss of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son (in a fall from a cliff near the family’s home in Brighton), the album recording was completed in the aftermath.
It is hard to separate the album from the tragedy that surrounds it, although this is what Cave himself asks us to do in the accompanying documentary film ‘One More Time With Feeling’. But even the opening line brings your mind snapping back to focus “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / Near the River Adur”. Words written before the tragic event but somehow so painfully foreshadowing.
There is, however, a logical progression from the earlier work. The Cave motifs are continued, mermaids, the sea, Gothic horror and the exploration of mortality. There are tracks where Cave sings from the view of an unknown female character and then goes on to sing about the same character from an outsider’s perspective, watching the woman becoming unrecognisable.
Whilst, for the most part, the lyrics are the standard Nick Cave fare, it is the delivery that really makes the record bite. Gone is the rage and threatening creepiness that rang out in Cave’s voice in 2013’s album Push Away the Sky. Here the speech-singing feels vulnerable and lost over the floating, looping texture of the music. He sounds like he has aged so much in the intervening years. On the seventh track, ‘Distant Sky’, he is joined by Danish soprano Else Torp as he searches for peace and the soothing lullaby of her voice just sharpens the bite of grief.
The Bad Seeds are as experimental and hypnotic as they have ever been. The old jangling rock of the early albums is long forgotten and Warren Ellis leads the fascinating and at times unsettling waves of sound that underlie Cave’s piano and voice. This is a band that known for impressive energy and wildness during live performances, producing tracks like From Her to Eternity; the stripped back effect is disquieting, though there is still the occasional snap of discord to keep you hooked.
This is an album you will listen to from start to finish and then find yourself sat in the dark thinking about for hours later. Perhaps, unlike his earlier work, it is not one you will return to again and again, the emotional drain it takes even as an outsider is exhausting. And perhaps this is not an album for outsiders to enjoy as such. But as Nick Cave explains in One More Time With Feeling, life goes on around tragedy, and for an artist, life is making art.
By Imogen Breen