Before we delve into this album, let’s get one thing straight. This is not an album about the death of Nick Cave’s son. And it is an album about the death of Nick Cave’s son.
What I’m trying to say, at the risk of being contradictory, is that in a strictly chronological sense, Skeleton Tree was mostly written and recorded by the time 15-year-old Arthur Cave tragically and accidentally fell to his death in July 2015. Yet that event–the terrible fact of a presence forever lost–hangs like a spectre over the entire album, and cannot be separated from it. Arthur Cave’s death is, then, part of the album’s emotional context. It provides a framework for interpreting the songs, which are indeed harrowing, haunted, and heartbreaking.
I hesitate to mention the death of Cave’s son at all, given the risk of crassness when it’s trotted out as an oversimplified album narrative. (“Oh, that’s Nick Cave’s record about his son’s death.”) At the same time, to gloss over it entirely seems more like a stubbornness than like something that is required by the album itself. Besides, Nick Cave has, through the album’s companion film, One More Time With Feeling, addressed the loss of his son directly. (The film was made so that he wouldn’t have to do press and face interview questions about Arthur’s death.)
The lyrics on Skeleton Tree are full of imagery of water and great expanses. This is not a claustrophobic album, not an inward retreat from the world in the wake of loss. It is instead an album that outwardly searches for meaning, that takes to the streets, and to the oceans, in search of solace. “I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / And nothing is for free,” sings Cave near the end of the album.
Ultimately, Cave finds little of transcendent value.”I don’t actually believe that is what life is like, that there is a pleasing narrative,” Cave says in the film. He expresses this notion lyrically in the album’s first track, “Jesus Alone”: “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?” Still, scraps of memory buoy him along through his darkest times, and when Danish soprano Else Torp’s guest vocals enter, they land like breaking glass: sad, clear, and beautiful. The clouds have parted, and sunshine radiates, if only for a minute. The track functions as a kind of false ending. Then the title track follows, providing a fitting denouement.
My favourite line on the album is its most specific: “I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues.” I can just imagine a tired, hollowed-out Cave, at the end of a long day, waiting in the checkout line with his basket of groceries, his mind wandering to his lost son. Often, life most mundane moments carry the greatest meaning, and Cave does a brilliant job of tapping into this truth in the span of a single line.
The music on Skeleton Tree is, in some ways, a continuation of the more minimal, loop-influenced sound that the Bad Seeds explored to great effect on 2012’s Push the Sky Away (a very underrated album upon its release). But whereas the sonic backdrops that Warren Ellis conjured for Push the Sky Away were warped in a way that was still delicate and beautiful, Skeleton Tree‘s are grinding, and also ethereal. It’s quite a paradoxical effect, and makes the album feel heavy yet sparse; sad, yet barren.
Vocally, the album is also an achievement. Cave’s voice has never sounded so emptied, so tired, so lived-in. But at the same time, he retains his command of (over?) the audience. When he intones, “With my voice, I am calling you,” the line is delivered with the dark confidence his artistic persona embodies so well both on record and onstage.
It’s hard to believe, but with the release of Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave may have made an album that is even more death-haunted than 1996’s Murder Ballads. This certainly isn’t an easy album, nor one that you can listen to multiple times in one day. But it is a singular and deeply affecting work that sounds like it must have been a lot of work emotionally and psychologically to pull off. As many have said before, as Nick Cave nears 60, he’s showing no signs of becoming over-the-hill artistically.
Amazingly, his best may be yet to come.