Music Reviews
Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree

(Bad Seed Ltd.) Rating - 10/10

Very few artists both equally savor and loathe standing behind the invisible barriers of fame. Nick Cave has spent over half of his lifetime devoting himself to the power of performance, willingly out of the spotlight, and he’s never expressed any remorse. But never has Cave’s own existence ever been more tested than after the tragic passing of his son Arthur, an event that’s forced him to be the center of attention, a source of pity that allows for everyone else to grieve for and with him. It's an inevitable aspect of caring, but in a more cynical mindset, an allurement that serves as bait for media attention. It’s an uncomfortable place to be in, but especially for Cave, an artist who has a long history of contemplating on record through considerations of mortality and death.

It’s something of a fool’s errand to scrutinize over any shallow parallels in hopes of finding some absolute truth behind Cave’s latest studio effort, Skeleton Tree. Or at least not in the way that you’d expect. Skeleton Tree, as is most of his work, is another attempt for him to evaluate his faith simply by gauging his own experiences with a pragmatic, albeit profoundly poetic, lens. But Cave doesn’t make it easy for us to avoid what can't be changed. There’s a potency in the way that Cave opens the album with Jesus Alone, “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / near the river Adur,” an image that undeniably alludes to how his son fell off a cliff in Brighton. Cave is at a confluence between reality and fiction, somehow trying to make sense of the senseless by ingraining his vivid storytelling devices.

As Jesus Alone descends with a somber plea, the less ponderous Rings of Saturn drifts in a more sedate rhythm as Cave sing-speaks in measured fragments akin to Patti Smith. The narrative is focused, but otherwise oblique, and utilizes a repeated springy arrangement with a chanting chorus that, much like this ANOHNI's Hopelessness earlier this year, finds a way to give a bright-eyed pop chorus a chiaroscuro rendering. Cave careens in different directions, though an underlying dejection remains, and it greatly intensifies even further as it transitions into Girl in Amber. The soul of Amber lies in its cinematic piano arrangements, both dramatic and delicate, where Cave seems to resign himself with the outside world even if an intrusive clamor consumes him: “And if you want to bleed, don’t breathe a word / just step away and let the world spin”.

But nothing really prepares one for the utterly soul crushing, but equally mesmerizing Magneto, a drab ambient piece that casts a tenebrous spell. Cave makes the mundane sound haunting and unsettling, where an utterly afflicted Cave seems to recall a terrible calamity as he struggles to open the door for love to come his way. It’s in Warren Eliss’s unsharp synth outlines where Cave digs into these elegant subtleties, an indispensable asset who’s given a stark transformation to the Bad Seeds name for the past two decades ever since he roused us with the surprisingly intimate The Boatman’s Call. Just as follow-up No More Shall We Part presented a transition in Cave’s life after overcoming his heroin addiction by just retuning things just a notch, Skeleton Tree also suggests a cautious degree of emotional adjustment that further defines the sparse chamber arrangements of Push the Sky Away.

Without further inspection, there’s this assumption that things haven’t changed much. But then one of the album’s most evident absences becomes very much apparent: there’s hardly any characters inspiring Cave’s imagination, a signature of his work, instead replaced by implicit confessionals that mostly follow a first-person narrative. A sobering ballad like I Need You initially comes across as bereft of any intellectual compass, and could possibly be even scoffed at by a younger Cave, and yet he proudly owns every single word. Even with a soulful refrain right at the end of the track that is not too far off from Bette Midler's climactic vocal phrasing in Wing Beneath My Wings, this is still not your typical ballad. Everything about the track seems a little bit off. Cave allows himself to let his frail, out-of-tune utterances flourish, as a tawdry synth lead gives the track a paradoxical sense of triumphant heroism with a disciplined drum pattern that is slightly askew. It’s as maddening as it is fascinating, a song in which Cave tries his hardest to sound conventional when, in truth, he’s accidentally stumbled into a show-stopping centerpiece that pulsates with heart-rending purity and honesty. It really is just about missing someone.

Ultimately, Skeleton Tree is the sound of feeling and not expressing sorrow. It’s something unexplainable, a feeling you can’t quite place into words when you’re still decompressing. Regardless of how it informs his current standing, it still quells Cave’s insatiable curiosity with the same adventurous streak that’s defined his entire oeuvre. “And it’s alright now,” Cave closes the title track with a passive lament, a personal admission to himself that there’s no other course to take. He just has to live with it, and a life-long devotion to creating art is what will keep him in place. It’s truly sinister how the worst of circumstances bring out such beautiful gifts. [Believe the Hype]