Near the end of the heartbreaking documentary One More Time With Feeling, Nick Cave delivers a devastating assessment of the trauma that he recently faced. “It happened to us, but it happened to him,” he intones, weary and distant. He’s referring then to the process of coping with the untimely death of his son, of becoming a pitied figure, of constantly being tethered to a void, but also reminding of the immediate physical reality of Arthur Cave’s death. It is at once a moment fixed in the past and a constant, recurring present, that duality compounding the pain. The blurry timelines, stream-of-consciousness songwriting, and imagistic lyrics of Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album, Skeleton Tree, just as easily define the experience of listening to the album: an experience for the listener, but also for Cave.
You don’t need to see One More Time in order to understand Skeleton Tree, but it does afford some key insights. Even before Cave admits that he’s releasing the songs in a far less polished, finished form than he normally would, the documentary’s many quiet pauses, ums, and ahs reveal that warts-and-all approach. Close listens may reveal slight tonal clashes, harmonies that waver, just-missed notes; but these only work to reinforce the fragility of life that Cave notes in his lyrics. “My blood was full of gags and other people’s diseases,” he sings on “Magneto”, one of many moments at which Cave feels like he may either collapse under the weight of pain or become a steely, unbreakable icon of pain itself.
The change comes in Cave’s songwriting as well. He’s no longer telling elaborate stories full of intricately felt characters. These are visceral sketches, flashes of memory, imagination, and some blend thereof all leaping out in fits. In the film, Cave explains that, essentially, he no longer believes in stories; he can’t connect with them because he no longer believes the world works in that linear way. Such traumatic times can produce that kind of radical shift, unlocking a more primal type of storytelling, something even more raw, deep, and dark than 2013’s Push the Sky Away.
The result is a record that recalls the recent maximalist work of Swans, but without that level of reckless abandon or digging at the raw nerve. Cave’s profound voice and tendency for poeticism recall Scott Walker as well, though world-weary rather than feral. From the opening line of the album (“You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur,” on the exquisite “Jesus Alone”), it’s clear that Cave wants to expose some of his darkness and work it out, but while he puts it on the table, he doesn’t exactly dissect it. The pain is draped in a thin, black veil, something you can see contours through, but not precise expressions.
The amorphous, mutable qualities of Cave’s lyrics are matched by seas of orchestrated emotionality rather than tight arrangements. Swans are certainly a touch point, but Warren Ellis (Cave’s close collaborator) seems to draw from John Fahey as well, the string sections and burbling drones evoking the experimental guitarist’s compositions, at times like creaking ship hulls and whale calls, others intensely womb-like — though disturbed.
The recording process had begun when Arthur Cave died and was completed later. The songs don’t show signs of being stitched together between multiple moments, multiple types of sadness, but rather that a sad record was left at its rawest rather than cleaned up. The elegiac “I Need You” sighs and sways, “Nothing really matters” interjected every few lines, Cave’s vibrato threatening to break. It’s unclear what Cave feels at any second, singing of longing, of depression, of hope, of love, of everything in between. By the track’s end, he repeats, “I need you” in a teary pleading tone, adding in a few insistencies to “just breathe.”
The similarly cyclical “Girl in Amber” traps its moments much like the song’s title. Those familiar with the familial tragedy might find the verse about “your little blue-eyed boy” one of the most striking of the album, but Cave’s chorus (“If you want to bleed, just bleed” at first, “If you want to leave, don’t breathe” later) cuts deep. “I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone,” he cries, another mournful pinnacle. The percussion and noisy crackle of “Anthrocene” play like an eerie record skipping, Cave’s moments again recurring: a body falling, the breath as essence, the search for love and connection.
“With my voice I am calling you,” he repeats on “Jesus Alone”, an attempt at connection that never seems resolved. Throughout the record, Cave moves in and out of focus, though always clearly to his own ends — whether that be to protect himself or because the pain is so insular and fresh that he can’t translate it. Either way, as an artist, he needed to release the record in just this way in order to process his pain. Skeleton Tree was released for us, but it’s for him.
Essential Tracks: “Jesus Alone”, “I Need You”, and “Girl in Amber”