No one really knows how they’ll deal with grief until they encounter it. It hangs over everyday life, typically without much concern about having to face it each and every day. During moments alone you may construct scenes within your mind where you envision yourself dealing with the sadness in an ideal manner. You may reason that you’d be strong enough to handle it all when it finally does arrive.
The truth is that no matter how much you mentally prepare for it, grief has the ability to fundamentally, permanently change a person. With this notion, Nick Cave, along with The Bad Seeds, has created an album, Skeleton Tree, drawn out of that precise moment in time where his whole world changed forever.
In the opening track, Jesus Alone, Cave seems to directly address last year’s death of his teenage son, Arthur, with his very first line. “You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the river Adur,” he sings with heartbreaking precision.
Yet it is not the foreboding electronic stabs that wail like a far off siren, or the detail in this particular lyric that proves to be the most powerful component of the song. Instead, it is the capturing of an utterly overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
“You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?” Cave scolds himself with.
This rejection of a God also returns on the beautiful, penultimate track Distant Sky. Backed by Danish soprano Else Torp, Cave sings, “They told us our Gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
God and religion have always played a large part in his lyrics, but here he confronts the idea that he, along with everybody else, has been deserted.
It’s this rejection of God in a time when many would turn to the concept as a source of comfort, which earmarks Skeleton Tree as a work that refuses to try and find an easy way out or even a fleeting sense of healing. It crashes head-on into the grief and seems to deal with the consequences in real-time.
Rings of Saturn follows on from the lead track and is, initially at least, upbeat. Synths pulse around a static that is pierced by drum hits and Cave’s acrobatic wordplay.
“I thought slavery had been abolished, how come it’s gone and reared its ugly head again?” he questions in a moment of clarity.
It proves to be a brutal piece of imagery where you’re transported into a mind that has been captured by tragedy. There is no real sense to be found there, just a brain that knows it is now unfortunately a slave to circumstance.
The double hit of Girl in Amber and Magneto may then be the closest a listener will ever, and can ever, get to Cave. His barely there whisper looms over the muted instrumentation on the former, while it crackles with vulnerability during the latter.
Within Girl in Amber there is self-reference in the form of his band The Bad Seeds forming in 1984. But while the “song continues to spin,” as he puts it, he finds no comfort in them like he once did. Instead, his thoughts drift to the telephone that is shudderingly quiet and lying dormant in his house.
“I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world, In a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth, Well I don’t think that anymore,” Cave reasons out loud. Once again the preconceptions with death dominate his thinking, while a bed of soft backing vocals carry him off towards the conclusion.
Meanwhile, Magneto throbs with an intensity that is hard to muster from an almost spoken word track. Yet it is in the lyrics once again where this is sourced from. They are abstract enough to hide and keep little secrets here and there. But then in brief flashes, Cave reveals himself like never before.
It is sometimes difficult to decipher which of these songs were written before his son’s death. But in the case of Magneto, there can be no doubt. A soft pitter patter and lonely piano chords ring out through the haze as the mechanism for coping with grief persistently eludes Cave.
“The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming,” he says with an unguarded honesty.
“I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” he follows up with.
This projection of trying to return to some sort of normality is especially powerful. The use of “down there” giving off the sense that a significant amount of time had passed before the feeling of venturing back out into the world grasped. And yet even when it did there was no sense of reprieve from the sadness.
The bubbling Anthrocene then enters along with a persistent clatter of snare hits. “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose,” Cave sings over swelling instrumentation and a harmony of voices.
The second track released from the album then arrives in the form of I Need You. Cave’s vocals are particularly fragile here, as he is backed by just a steady synth line and withdrawn drums. Its stripped back nature allowing it to wander along harrowingly in rumination.
“Just breathe, just breathe, I need you,” Cave barely manages to sputter out.
The final title track emits some sort of light out from beneath the bleakness. But even this is shallow and noticeable in its sparsity.
The assertion that “nothing is for free” bites through perhaps the most instrumentally fleshed out track on the album. There is the sombre strum of acoustic guitar, a piano line that provides the backbone, and a restrained drum groove.
“And it’s alright now” Cave sings, unconvincingly, as his final lines for the album, with the band disappearing along with him. It’s not alright but you get the sense that Cave needs to say it out loud just so he can believe that it will get better eventually.
Skeleton Tree is undoubtedly an album unlike anything else you’ll hear this year, perhaps even ever. On his previous record he implored himself to “push the sky away,” but on this one he is resigned to the fact that the sky is pressed up against him. It’s a difficult album to listen to in most settings; it is precisely, definitively grounded in a deeply personal, deeply specific context.
The depth of sadness within it can be suffocating at times. It is like deep diving right down to the bottom of the ocean, without even the aide of an oxygen tank.
The submersion is not something you can actively enjoy, yet the rawness and beauty in it is something to be admired. It is tormented, anguished, and heart-broken all at once. And it seems as close as anybody is ever going to get to convey those emotions so honestly on record.
Skeleton Tree is out now via Bad Seed Ltd.
Image: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds