NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS Skeleton Tree Bad Seed Ltd
Nick Cave’s 16th studio album with The Bad Seeds is bookended by tragedy and promise, and within these eight songs is a complete exploration of grief as a human emotion. Like much of Cave’s previous work, death looms darkly as a reoccurring theme, yet in consideration of the tragic context, the album is unequivocally one the bravest records of recent times. Skeleton Tree feels so emotionally raw that communal listening can be difficult, though this in itself reflects on what has been achieved here.
Album opener Jesus Alone begins with a statement. “You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the river Adur.” Some of the material for Skeleton Tree, like Jesus Alone, was written before the passing of Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur, who fell from a cliff in Brighton last year, but this tragedy often colours Cave’s words. Following Jesus Alone’s moody musical palette, second song Rings Of Saturn captures a tender sense of warmth, addressing a female character and exerting a soothing influence on Cave’s inner turmoil. But Cave can’t quite submit the intimacy. “I’m there and I’m also not there,” he sings, “maybe I’m just too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain.”
Girl In Amber, in which Cave pleads “don’t touch me” repeatedly, and Magneto include some of the album’s most difficult moments. There’s a noise that mimics a ticking clock or a dripping tap in Magneto, invoking a claustrophobia linked to being stuck in the house, and the song sees Cave – a former addict – wander between his own musings and grapple for coping mechanisms, and his ability to function is brought into question. “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/ I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” he confesses.
On Anthrocene, the sights are cast wider, the music is unsettled, drum rolls and fluttering cymbals invoke wind and there are descriptions of animals, the sky, the wilds. The danger of the outdoors. Arthur’s final night may well be addressed directly with the lines, “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose/ It’s our bodies that fall when they try to rise,” and “Come on now, come on now/ Hold your breath while you’re safe/ It’s a long way back and I’m begging you please/ To come home now, come home now.” The sound of someone as hardened, weathered and wild as Nick Cave like he’s struggling to suppress his tears on I Need You makes for one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone,” is a timeless truth, with Caves’ unfiltered delivery replicating a state of distress, and the Bad Seeds’ warm backing vocals appearing like supportive arm around the shoulder.
It’s the final two songs which finally embrace the idea of peace. Distant Sky is soft and celestial, signaling the breaking of a new day. It’s the introduction of Danish soprano Else Torp’s voice that catches you off guard in the malaise. In a record which often feels bereft of hope, there is a surrender here to the shattering loss. On the album’s title track, Cave muses “nothing is for free”, ending with the repeated line “it’s alright now” and providing a necessary glimmer of optimism to close.
Whether Nick Cave has directly addressed the events that have in part shaped this album is not always clear – if he hasn’t there are coincidences in abundance in the lyrical progression and the themes. What is mined here is an exhaustive yet cathartic coalescence of one of the toughest human emotions as musical art. An astounding achievement.