By Abbi Parcell
Nick Cave has always been an artist who toys with the notion of death in his work, but Skeleton Tree is where we see him more exposed then ever.
Wearing his heart on his sleeve, tackling the devastation of the untimely death of his son head on through the medium of his beautifully melancholy lyrics – that are perfectly complimented by fragmented piano fills, and the deep swoops of Warren Ellis’ woeful string arrangements. This is a record that could only be conjured up in the head of a man who has been through something unspeakable. Only Nick Cave could execute an album with such a dark subject matter, with such beauty and grace. It is undoubtedly one of the hardest, most emotive albums I’ve listened to but also one of the greatest in the Bad Seed’s endless back catalogue.
15-year-old Arthur Cave died in July of 2015 after falling from a cliff in Brighton. Cave asked for privacy during the recording of the album as he understandably needed time to grieve and to process just what was happening to him and his family. He went on to release Skeleton Tree in conjunction with the film One More Time with Feeling – directed by Andrew Dominik – as a medium of tackling the album’s distressing content without having to speak to a journalist about it.
The outcome is just as beautifully heart wrenching as one could expect from Cave. Even from the first line of ‘Jesus Alone’ that opens with Caves fragmented mumblings:
“You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur.”
He paints a clear picture of the devastation no matter how hard it may be – there isn’t a single moment where he cowers, he walks straight into it.
The days of Cave’s raspy croons seem like a distant memory; his fragile, exhausted, pensive vocals swirl and get lost in a sea of disembodied electronic jolts that wouldn’t sound out of place on Bowie’s Station to Station or Low perhaps.
But for me, it has to be the looming, even religious feel to Girl in Amber that makes it stand out as the eye of this brutal storm. He reflects upon the lacing up of the shoes of his “little blue-eyed boy” who’s presence courses through the very veins of the album.
Death is the one concept that Cave has obsessed over as an artist throughout his career but is as though such fictional dwellings upon the matter have ceased as a harrowing dose of reality cannot help but creep into every corner of Skeleton Tree.
“I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/ In a slumber til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/I don’t think that anymore.”
Cave mumbles aimlessly, barely able to conceal the cracks in his fragile voice. Before uttering a helpless “Don’t touch me” as he fades further and further away from us, into the luscious soundscape.
The beautifully twisted romantic imagery that has lived on in the Bad Seed’s work since 1984, has been replaced with a cold, hard dose of realism that rises to the surface in particular on Distant Sky where the contrast between Cave’s battered and bruised vocals and the angelic sound of Else Torp’s cathartic soprano intertwine to reject the concept of heaven.