Skeleton Tree: a Step Forward and a Step Within

If you know anything about Skeleton Tree, the new album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, you know the context of its creation: midway through laying down the music, Nick Cave’s son fell off of a cliff and died at the age of 15. The album begins on a note of grim irony: “you fell from the sky and crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”, a line I’m told was composed well before the accident. From that stark opening, things only get worse.

The images that follow are a mixture of classic and contemporary Nick Cave: mermaids, lambs, blood, drug addicts, African religion, God. So much of Nick Cave’s work has revolved explicitly around God and death but what makes Skeleton Tree unique in his oeuvre is how he reacts to his subjects this round out: the album feels numb, resigned, and naked. Going in, and knowing the circumstances, I was expecting a sequel to The Boatman’s Call. Lyrically, the pessimism in regards to a belief in an interventionist God is there, but musically, Cave and the Bad Seeds move deeper into the sonic minimalism that marked most of Push the Sky Away, their previous full-length.

I want to give a lot of praise to The Bad Seeds themselves. They are one of alternative rock’s most malleable acts and since the mid-aughts, their sound has been defined as much by who is in the band as who has left it. With the absence of Mick Harvey in 2009, Cave wisely didn’t attempt to replace him or try to compensate for his absence. 2013’s Push the Sky Away had a noticeably stripped down sound, with large swatches of space where before there would be guitar. Skeleton Tree continues the progression into the vanishing point further, with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis setting up simple but evocative loops and vocals in the background. That the same core band that gave us something as intense and bawdy as Let Love In can also pare down the bare essentials of their sound for this album’s ambient landscape says much about the sheer talent of the Bad Seeds as an outfit.

For the most part, the songs reveal their hands early, setting up loops and sounds and moods and then unobtrusively wind and rewind under Cave’s strained baritone poems, closer to the mid-century confessional school of poetry than the histrionic prose of something like “Song of Joy” or “The Mercy Seat”. Cave described his newer lyrical style as being a mish-mash of dreamlike imagery instead of concrete sets and settings, and Skeleton Tree shocks with a few stray phrases: lines about his blue-eyed boy, spirits wandering the earth, atheistic resignation. It’s Cave’s shortest album but another five minutes would be too much to bear.

The lyrics of the song “Magneto” veer between swallowed rage in mundane situations and the visceral reaction of vomiting into the bathroom sink, a scope of feelings that anyone who has dealt with death publicly can relate to. Cave himself did not do any media or press interaction because he said he couldn’t bear the thought of it, allowing the work itself and the accompanying documentary “One More Time with Feeling” to stand alone as documents of the era. With a product as demanding and singular as this one, what could anyone really say? Skeleton Tree is an unvarnished look into grief, as uncomfortable as watching an old friend mourn without being able to say anything that will even come close to healing. I love the album but I wish it had found us under better circumstances. Highly recommended. Check out the full album below. 




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