Nick Caves first album with the Bad Seeds since the death of his son is harrowingly bleak, but heartrendingly beautiful
In Andrew Dominiks uncomfortably riveting documentary One More Day With Feeling about the build of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 16 th album the vocalist describes a terrible event, which has become omnipresent. Time is elastic. We can go away from the event but at some point the elastic snaps and we always come back to it.
That event, of course, was the death last July of his 15 -year-old son, Arthur, after he fell from a cliff. Cave has attempted to deal with his familys grief in the only route he knows. Thus, Skeleton Tree is a musical response to the unimaginable horror; while the recording conferences began before Arthurs death much of the write was completed beforehand its hard not to hear the album as reflecting Caves emotional pile-up of shock, embarrassment and personal disintegration, especially in the intensity of the performances that postdate the tragedy. Its a record of unusual rawness, franknes and intensity. Where the pre-trauma, far more private Cave would have sharpened lyrics, shrouded meanings, tidied things up in mixture or postproduction, Skeleton Tree has been largely left as it was born, mistakes and all, as an instinctive wail from the heart and gut.
The documentary assures Cave fretting that he should have strengthened his voice before entering the studio. However, as with, say, the succumbing Johnny Cashs version of Nine Inch Nails Hurt, the debilities, meanders and vulnerabilities in his voice give the record its strength and humanity.
There arent many, if any, precedents, but Eric Claptons 1991 song Tears in Heaven was written in response to the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, also from a fall. But where Clapton discovered some consolation in ideas of heavenly reunions and eventual peace, Cave procures no such redemption or solution. In fact, one of Skeleton Trees most powerful statements is its rejection of God and notions of easy healing, happy terminates or even meaning.
This is, unsurprisingly, a very dark record, which captures a sort of post-traumatic stress ailment in which the Cave no longer knows what he will think from one moment to the next, vomits in the bathroom sink, watches bags growing under his eyes and for whom everyday mundanities have become a frightening ordeal: Oh, the recommend to kill someone was basically overwhelming. I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues. However, i still have beauty, empathy and love as it veers between bewildered numbness and heartbreaking profundity.
Some ballads, such as brooding opener Jesus Alone, were written before events changed the album irrevocably, which induces the sungs sledgehammer first line You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur shockingly prophetic. Nothing is ducked here; everything is bared or confronted and Caves agonised plea With my voice I am calling you, over a background of industrial noise and wounded bird exclaims stimulates for a powerful opener.
At hours, as on Rings of Saturn, Skeleton Key is almost pretty, but with a black undercurrent: that sung views the inevitability of death and brutality through the metaphor of a venomous bug. The plangent, synth-and-piano-led Girl in Amber is deceptively beautiful, but delivers a succession of blows as fleeting memories( You kneel, lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy) are swept away by the enormity of loss: I knew the world would stop spinning now since youve been gone/ I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/ I dont is considered that any more.
Anthrocene has echoes of the Doorway Horse Latitude its an angry collage of sound whipped into a frenzy by an unforgiving, raging vocal but some of the albums best moments tap into the nearly transcendently eerie pacify that follows grief. I Need You is astonishingly gorgeous: a sung from a numb void where feeling has been drained but love glints like a faraway trigger. In the duet Distant Sky, Else Torp offers a fleeting consolation in heightened senses and the new joy of the world around, before Cave shatters the peace with furious devastation: They told us our divinities would outlive us, but they lied. Some moments the vocalists cry over the sea in the title way, to be met by an empty echo are almost too personal to bear, and its hard to know who exactly he addresses in the albums final line, And its all right now.
Skeleton Tree will take its place in the racks alongside Justin Bieber or whoever, where it will sit like a gaping open meander. It will prove scant consolation to the vocalist that the worst various kinds of trauma has created a piece of art that will surely prove unforgettable to all who hear it.
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