Nick Cave, undoubtedly one of the most compelling lyricists alive, has gifted us with a record full of characteristically complex prose and an uncharacteristically personal narrative contemplating the most mortal experience of all: grief. Cave’s son, Arthur, died in a fall off of a cliff last July, and while practice sessions for this album had begun a month before the tragedy, the lyrics were yet to be written.
The album, entitled Skeleton Tree, begins with lead single “Jesus Alone,” an undulating, sighing synth soaring high over a jagged bass. Distant cymbals beat not quite in time, hinting towards the improvisational sound dating back to the early days of the Bad Seeds. Lyrically, Cave wonders about the complex emotions that God had when he lost his own son. The song is not a hubristic allegory, but rather a humbling one. It has decidedly dark content, but it begins on a note of regeneration and renewal. For example, Cave writes that where his son fell, “flowers spring from the ground / Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers.” As the song progresses, the subject shifts from victim to observer, child to parent and dead to living.
“Rings of Saturn” continues the album’s sparse sound, but the lyrics progress into a more oblique narrative: “You’re like a funnel-web … a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything.” Gentle synth flourishes punctuate Cave’s pauses, while beautiful backing vocals pad out the instrumental. Only Cave could write lines such as this that capture the exact moment in time when hope vanishes and loss is realised: “Up and out of the bed and down the hall where she stops for moment […] reaches high and dangles herself like a child’s dream from the rings of Saturn.”
The gravel in Cave’s voice during “Girl in Amber” is a complete contrast to the chorale of the backing vocals and string arrangement. You can sense the goose flesh that undoubtedly spread on the skin of the accompanying musicians as this song was recorded. Cave is literally howling from his gut.
Some of the lines on this track are like a time machine; they take you backwards to a time when loss was an exercise of the imagination and forward to a realised, nihilistic now: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber til your crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / Well, I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more.”
The constantly shifting reverberation on “Magneto” is sporadically interrupted by a screech of white noise that creates the necessary distance between the listener and the abject honesty of the lyrics. These words are a fusion of abstract images and viscerally real scenes: “I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl […] My monstrous little memory had swallowed me whole / It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus.”
In “Anthrocene,”drums crash and knell in the distance as the Skeleton Tree metaphor is extended beyond the family to Mother Nature herself: “It’s hard to believe / That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene” (the new era). Here, Cave laments how we cause both personal and environmental dissolution for the sake or illusion of progress. The song is an understated and impressive statement about the collective “we” without being forcibly accusatory or judgemental about the way we ought to live. It is a rare thing indeed to be able to write a conscious song without any agenda behind it.
“I Need You” resonates pain. It is a song about fearing loss under the guise of a song about a woman in red. The accompanying music video of the restrained Bad Seeds performing the song will ruin you, particularly as Cave’s voice breaks when he sings, “Nothing really matters.”
The duet with Danish soprano Else Torp on “Distant Sky,” which is serene in sound and voices, is eclipsed by an ever increasing sense of anguish in lines like: “They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied” and “Soon the children will be rising… This is not for our eyes.”
The titular track and closer does not resolve all of the previous depression, but it expresses catharsis in the utterance of such darkness: “I called out right across the sea / But the echo comes back in, dear / And nothing is for free.” Here, Cave concludes that enough has been said, and because of this, ”everything is alright now.” After the full arrangement thrums in airy, cathedral-like reverberation and close vocal harmonies, Cave repeats that final line three times because he means it, or at least he tries to. He has to, for if he did not, it would all be too much.
This record is very good and very sad. It is a definitive artistic nepenthe for the agony of living with the memory of the dead. 10/10.