On Saturday, February 6th 2016 I was finally able to go see Black Sabbath in concert. I went with an old friend and had a blast posing with protesters, taking in the heavy metal music, and basically enjoying life. It was quite honestly a concert highlight for me, in a year that has seen me attending the most concerts of my life (cue up the mid-life crisis jokes). That night – me + a friend living out our heavy metal dreams – was also the last night of life in the Philadelphia suburbs for an Aunt that I was very close to.
I woke that Sunday to a somber message from my Mom asking her to call. Bleary eyed and confused, I called her. My Aunt had passed away early that morning after an unexpected asthma attack w/ complication. I had been very close to my Aunt in the days after college – I had even worked with her for a year after she put in a good word for me. The 3000-mile distance between Seattle and Philadelphia never felt far away when I saw her on my visits home. We had a natural relationship that I expected to last another 35 to 40 years. I broke down on the phone that day, then later again on the phone with my Mom and Great Aunt. Then…nothing. I’ve blocked out the pain and have distracted my thoughts when they present themselves.
In the summer of 2015 Nick Cave lost his 15-year-old son Arthur in a tragic accident. He died after falling off a cliff near Ovingdean Gap in Brighton, England. I remember reading the articles and wondering “How does someone recover from something like that?”. I felt the pain would almost be insurmountable. When Skeleton Tree – the 16th studio album from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – was announced, I was intrigued. How can an artist regroup and move forward in the face of unimaginable tragedy? Little did I know, this album would help me to deal with the grief and pain that I have suppressed since my Aunt passed away.
The sound of the album is suitably somber with an orchestral avant-garde feel. There are strong melodies – at times. If Joy Division’s Closer is the sound of a man who has lost hope and is contemplating suicide, then Skeleton Tree is the sound of a man clawing his way forward when he can’t see the light. The album’s sessions began in late 2014 and finished in early 2016. Lyrically, some songs seem to discuss the tragedy head on while others allude to the uncertainties of life. Vocally, it is a weary performance from Mr. Cave – laced in sadness and resignation. The album was released concurrently with the film One More Time with Feeling which was created during the album sessions. The film was released as a way for album promotion without repeatedly discussing the tragedy that informs the album’s content. A bold artistic statement, this is one of the album’s that people will talk about for years to come.
Jesus Alone opens the album with electronic buzzing, eerie orchestration, and a sense of feeling slightly off kilter. Opening line directly confronts the elephant in the room “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / Near the river Adur”. Mr. Cave is in fine voice and the chorus is both the strongest on the album and the saddest “With my voice / I am calling you”. Breathtaking, haunting, emotional. Rings of Saturn could be a cousin of E-Bow the Letter by R.E.M. It features the same kind of loose narrative with Cave half singing / half speaking his words. Lighter in tone than the opener yet no less impactful. Lyrically it is abstract. Key lines “And I’m breathing deep and I’m there and I’m also not there” …” Or maybe I’m just too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain”. Girl in Amber is the sound of a funeral. Sad, overwhelming, and beautiful. Nick Cave is grasping for answers and finding none satisfactory. Warren Ellis deserves a lot of credit for bringing all the disparate elements in this song to fruition. As a kind of musical director for this album, he has helped create a masterpiece. Key lyrics: “I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone / I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber til your crumble were absorbed into the earth / Well, I don’t think that any more the phone it rings no more”. Mournful violins punctuate the proceedings. Magneto is a haunting tone poem, minimal electronic backing while Cave tells his story. There is no chorus or melody to speak of, yet its allure is impossible to deny. The words that are repeated with a bit of a piano are “In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you love / I move, you move and one more time with feeling”. Anthrocene is very much in tune with Magneto – a catharsis for Cave’s pain. It is both hauntingly sad and mesmerizing. Dissonant percussion punctuates the song, seemingly out-of-place among the orchestration. Key words: “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” …” here are powers at play more forceful than we / Come over here and sit down and say a short prayer / A prayer to the air, the air that we breathe”. I Need You has a sinister synth riff with a vulnerable vocal performance. After the tone poem experiments of the previous tracks, it is a return to a strong chorus and melody structure. Confronting grief head on. “Nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”. Distant Sky is the sound of resignation with slight hope. It features backing vocals from Else Torp which adds a soothing part to the song. As a duet it is a nice contrast between hope and hopelessness. “They told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied”. Skeleton Tree ends the album with an optimistic sound. Cave’s vocals are stronger in tone, assertive. Acceptance. There is a Gospel feel to the chorus. The orchestration and piano are fully realized and gives the song some muscle that was rarely present on the earlier tunes. “And I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / I called out, I called out / That nothing is for free / And it’s alright now”.
This is not an easy album to listen to by any means. And yet, I’ve had it on repeat for two weeks. Thinking about what Nick Cave was going through. Thinking about my Aunt and how much I miss her and that I can’t block things out that don’t feel good. Acceptance. A work of art. Album of the year and maybe the century. Thank you, Mr. Cave.
Verdict: Heartbreaking & Brilliant
For Fans of: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, David Bowie
- Jesus Alone
- Rings of Saturn
- Girl in Amber
- I Need You
- Distant Sky
- Skeleton Tree