Album Review : Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree (2016)
I was preparing for a classic review of Godflesh's industrial rock powerhouse Streetcleaner last Friday when Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds dropped their new record Skeleton Tree on us. I wouldn't call myself an avid fan of Nick Cave, but he's a musician who lived and died by his artistic integrity and his creative output always remained challenging and pertinent over the three decades of his band's existence. I was not even one year old when Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds were formed and they're still rocking today. People anticipated the release of Skeleton Tree (and the documentary companion piece One More Time With Feeling) because it was his first creative statement since the passing of Nick Cave's son Arthur.
Skeleton Tree is simple, raw and easy to like given the circumstances. But I wouldn't call it a triumph. This doesn't aim to please the crowd and move strangers. It has the idiosyncratic beauty of what is unburdened by expectations. Skeleton Tree is not a triumph, it's not immortal, it just is and it needs to be appreciated accordingly.
Nobody knew what to expect of Skeleton Tree, yet it turned out to be a quite simple and intimate record. While Nick Cave remains his colorful, original self on it, he seems to be dealing with grief in a very human way. The production is nuanced and subtle, but the music and the atmospheres are never really complex. Piano is very dominant but it is often played only a handful of long, lingering notes at a time. On the song Jesus Alone (one of my favorites on the record), Cave and his musicians mixed in electronic and old school industrial sounds that drown out the piano notes and give them this helpless, futile quality. It's not given to many musicians to make music poignant, but Nick Cave's got it figured out. Jesus Alone is quite busier than the rest of Skeleton Tree, though. It's enjoyable, gripping and quite Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' sound, but don't let is create expectations for what you're about to hear.
See, piano-and-voice records are historically meant to be enjoyed for the voice and lyrics and this is where the beauty and complexity of Skeleton Tree unfolds. Aside from Jesus Alone and Anthrocene, which features elements of drum n' bass music, Skeleton Tree had a stripped down, aerial aesthetic to it. Nick Cave is in oblivion with the memory of his son and his hypnagogic visions of apocalypse for only companions. Allusions to death, nothingness and the heartbreaking challenge of carrying on are all over the record. In the beautiful Girl in Amber, Cave alludes to a song that's been spinning since 1984 and at the end says: "The song, the song, it spins, the song, it spins, no more/The phone, it rings, it rings and you won't say." Is the girl in amber his muse? The last lyrics in the song are "don't touch me," repeated over and over again. In Magneto, Cave says that his memory has swallowed him whole. He is outwardly confronting tragedy.
On such an aerial and nuanced record, what Nick Cave does with his voice is sometimes as important as the lyrics themselves. It perceptibly cracks several times on Magneto when he says "one more time with feeling" in the chorus.On I Need You, perhaps my least favorite track on the record along with Rings of Saturn, the pain in Cave's voice is palpable. It's physical, like someone's twisting the inside of his gut as he's singing. That see-through, tortured vulnerability kept the song captivating to me despite its more conventional (barely Bad Seedesque) themes and structure. If anything, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' Skeleton Tree rivals Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool heartbreaking, soul crushing approach to human frailty. While Skeleton Tree might not have the cerebral, all-encompassing approach of A Moon Shaped Pool, it makes up with a cohesiveness and an immediacy that unfortunately only be shaped by tragedy.
Skeleton Tree is a record that reflects very well Nick Cave's career. It has integrity. It is born from an inner need and has a purity that eschews expectations. It was not recorded to please you, it was recorded because Nick Cave needed an outlet to deal with the passing of his teenage son. The band stated there will be no single from Skeleton Tree, which I think also reflects their integrity. Cave doesn't want to turn his son's death into an artistic achievement and I respect that. While it's been getting incredible praise from the critics, I don't believe Skeleton Tree will be remembered in twenty or thirty years as a high point in Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds's discography. It's going to be remembered as that gloomy and aerial record where Cave courageously confronted his demons and shaped his pain into eight haunting songs. Writing an album is probably the most "Nick Cave way" of dealing with such terrible, life-altering tragedy.
So, what to make of Skeleton Tree? It's an undeniably good record. One that carries its authenticity like a burden. It's been getting tidal waves of love online and I'm worried it will end up suffering from the Stranger Things syndrome, creating unfair expectations for what it actually is. Skeleton Tree won't be universally loved. It's very much a "mood" record, one that you listen to at night with a glass of bourbon, when life's been dragging you underwater. It's that kind of record. I've noticed it's been quite a hit with fathers, so far. It prompted many middle-aged guys to hug their kids and feel lucky to have them at all. I don't have kids (yet) so I might not be "getting" something, but I believe Skeleton Tree to be an album that what not made to be "loved", like torn pages from a diary are not meant to be read. It transpires pain, integrity, courage and helplessness. It is the only logical thing Nick Cave could come up with following the passing of his son and he has my complete and utmost respect for doing so.