Much of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 16th album was created before tragedy struck Nick Cave's family, but that loss permeates through every track.
For all of the exquisitely shot scenes in Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary-but-not-quite documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, one image lingers more than any other. After nearly an hour-and-a-half of hearing Nick Cave ruminate about the creative process, and the nature of personas (a premise that would sound comedically pretentious for nearly 99.5 percent of nearly all musicians, but Cave just happens to fall into that half-percent mark that pulls off this feat), things slow down and turn domestic.
With his sons by his side, Nick Cave lounges in front of a TV, and digs into a pizza. Yes, the scene is still shot beautifully. Yes, all three are overdressed for a "hang out" scene. But after a documentary about how the “real" and “stage” personas of Nick Cave are interwoven, it’s a sublime snapshot of relatable normalcy.
Of course, that scene took on a whole, heart wrenching new meaning last year when Cave’s son, Arthur, died after falling from a cliff. Regardless of what was recorded before that unimaginable personal tragedy, the event will forever be tied to Skeleton Tree, much like how the circumstances around David Bowie’s death will forever be associated with Blackstar.
Similar to Blackstar, Skeleton Tree opens with a stunning leadoff, “Jesus Alone”. An unsettling whistle is repeated over Warren Ellis’ murky arrangement. The song’s brief character sketches range from serene to rock-bottom bleakness: a drug addict in a Tijuana hotel room, a young girl surrounded by hummingbirds, an African doctor, harvesting tear ducts.
“You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now,” Cave states.
Much like Blackstar, the leadoff track sets the stage for the rest of Skeleton Tree, and the ensuing tracks can’t help but pale slightly to the opener. That’s not to say that the tracks are weak by any stretch; it’s just that “Jesus Alone” is that commanding, and casts that big of a shadow.
The specter of death looming over a Nick Cave album is hardly an anomaly. Literally dozens of characters met their ends in 1996’s Murder Ballads. But on Skeleton Tree, the listener is left to reckon with the aftermath of such losses. On “Distant Sky”, vocalist Else Torp says an angelic departure: “Let us go now, my darling companion / Set out now for the distant skies.”
In separate contexts, “I Need You” takes on a vastly greater gravity. Taken literally, it’s a breakup ballad that returns to the mundane setting of a supermarket.
“Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” It’s one of Cave’s most open lyrics on Skeleton Tree. And as a breakup, it’s a straightforward account of an ending relationship. But read as a song addressed to a dearly departed individual, lines like “You’re still in me, baby” and “I need you, I need you. Just breathe. I need you” deliver an aching impact.
For an artist so linked with some of the darkest songs in rock today, Skeleton Tree, on its surface, appears to be almost an overwhelming listen. But tracks like “Rings of Saturn” and “Magneto” (which contains the lyric that serves as the title to One More Time With Feeling, the film documenting the making of Skeleton Tree) would have fit perfectly with the Bad Seeds’ last album Push The Sky Away. In true Nick Cave lyrical style, Skeleton Tree makes no effort to soften grief’s blow. As you’re mourning, the world is not stopping, not even for a second. But sometimes the only way to start feeling any sort of comfort is to face the unimaginable.
In One More Time With Feeling, Cave repeatedly talks about the relative unpolished quality of Skeleton Tree. If Push The Sky Away was a counter reaction to the Vegas-style glitz of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Skeleton Tree is even more reactionary. It’s far from an easy listen, but it never retreats into its grief. In the documentary, Cave uncomfortably tries to make sense of such a loss on camera, and ends up with little in terms of answers. Skeleton Tree offers little solace, but as the Bad Seeds' 16th album, it gives the listener an experience that is unshakable.