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Revisiting: Skeleton Tree - Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

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The overwhelmingly tragic event that occurred during the recording of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ 16th album has been much written about in the reviews that followed its release and was painfully explored through Andrew Dominik’s stark documentary One More Time With Feeling. Although Cave has said that many of the lyrics in Skeleton Tree were written before the unexpected death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, and he is never explicit that this work was a cathartic process, the album undoubtedly acts as a vessel that shifts between light and dark on a frequently changing current. Whether coincidence or not, the lyrics and music take us on an intensely existential journey that reflects a soul in crisis.

There are themes in Skeleton Tree that Cave has explored relentlessly over the years: religion, murder, loss, death, love, lust, more religion. Here, however, the band continue to pump blood through the same vein as their previous album Push the Sky Away by stepping further from the black comic tales that featured so heavily on their 90s hits such as Murder Ballads and Let Love In. These hazy, more expressionist songs require Cave fans to accept that he has changed direction for now, adding further depth and dimension to his already emotionally extensive back catalogue. One can’t help but link Skeleton Tree to David Bowie’s final album Blackstar or Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. There is a sense of something greater being present throughout - a determination to find a connection beyond the here and now.

From the opening track, Jesus Alone, we begin to feel the full weight of Cave’s lyrics and how they have taken a different form in light of his son’s death. ‘With my voice, I’m calling you’ he repeats over the ethereal and structureless synths. The strings swell and recede and high pitched, wind-like howls give us an immediate indication that that Cave’s mind is elsewhere: contemplating, confused, alone and searching for answers. As the album progresses, we float through Cave’s stream of consciousness. Girl In Amber brings us the line, ‘If you wanna bleed, just bleed’ and in Anthrocene, ‘everything we love, we lose’. The album begins to feel like a helix, the creation of music on one strand and the horrific events that surrounded this process on the other, with both never fully colliding.

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Only when the snare drum clicks in during the melodic I Need You does the weightlessness of the previous songs become apparent. We are presented with a more grounded track and the eerily foreseeing lament of: ‘Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone / You’re still in me baby / I need you / In my heart / I need you.’ The anguish and pain are unmistakable in his quivering voice. In One More Time With Feeling (a companion piece of essential viewing), there is a sequence where Dominick decides to cut Cave in a black shirt behind a screen with Cave in a white shirt performing the opening track. This gives the illusion of Cave looking at himself - a neat trick that adds imagery to the existential thread that runs through the album. We as listeners get a good look at Cave’s inner struggle laid bare before us.

Towards the end of the album, we realise that Cave won’t find what he’s looking for. ‘I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty’ he sings on the titular and final track, adding to the sense that this journey doesn’t end with a definitive answer. There is, perhaps, some hope as Cave ends the record by repeating, ‘it’s alright now.’ He has since said that, as they emerge from their grief, he and his wife have chosen happiness as a form of defiance, as a way of fighting the trauma and beginning to cope again.

These lyrics give a seriousness that hasn’t been fully explored by the Bad Seeds and one suspects we won’t hear with the same raw nakedness again. It is strange and almost perverse to think that the events surrounding the album have produced an unwelcome but unique creative space, without which it is doubtful that such a remarkable work could be repeated. TS