Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (Bad Seed Ltd., Sep. 2016) Reviewed by Mona Gainer-Salim

Skeleton Tree
by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
(Bad Seed Ltd., Sep. 2016)

Reviewed by Mona Gainer-Salim

I have always loved the power, authority, and conviction Nick Cave projects. It starts with the sheer force of his persona: for as long as I can remember, Cave has dressed in sharp black suits, combed back his black-dyed hair, and worn gaudy gold rings—trappings which, worn with less conviction, could easily seem silly. Cave pulls it off, though, scowling from underneath heavy black brows. From the beginning, Cave’s music and writing have unapologetically explored darkness in all its gory and irresistible details, from murder and revenge to love, devotion, and possession—all combinations thereof and more. Questioned about the “pessimistic content” of his songs in a 1987 TV documentary produced about him by a Dutch broadcaster, he suggests that it is optimistic songs that should be treated as suspect.

This rock star intensity—which Cave retains even now, when his music has become considerably gentler—would be insupportable without Cave’s consummate musical skill. With the Bad Seeds, whose creative imprint lies in every note, Cave has over the course of more than three decades created a sound that is not only utterly original, but flexible, powerful, and moving. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds radiate confidence—in their arrangements, performance, lyrics. For a time now, their music has had a seamless quality: a sense of control and authorship, of a group of musicians who have asserted mastery over their craft.

As every fan will know, Skeleton Tree comes at a time of extraordinary tragedy for Cave: in the wake of the death of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, little over a year ago. In this sense, it is probably an album by a different man. In Skeleton Tree, Cave shows a vulnerability that has rarely surfaced in his previous work. It is at once rawer, rougher, and gentler than the Cave his listeners have come to know. Cave seems less interested, in this album, in completeness and perfection; he is in uncharted territory, groping in the dark.

This is not altogether a new direction for Cave. Relinquishing control also seemed to be a theme in 2013’s Push the Sky Away. Perhaps encouraged by the growing influence of Warren Ellis, the former Bad Seeds violinist who over the years has grown into Cave’s chief collaborator, Cave was already happier, on that album, to let the songs sprawl and edge ever so slightly beyond his grasp. Cave has a great line in 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), another documentary about him, saying that he relishes the moment where you don’t yet understand a song and don’t yet know where it will take you, and—he says, clearly getting a kick out of this—all you can do is hang on for dear life. In Push the Sky Away, that moment tends to last longer than in previous albums. Songs such as “Water’s Edge” and “Finishing Jubilee Street” don’t seem to have a center, narrative or otherwise, and if they do, it is difficult to pin down. They are held together instead by a sort of pulse shrouded in waves of sound, on top of which all kinds of unorthodoxies, including lyrics that are more spoken than sung, are possible.

Skeleton Tree takes it further. The change is pervasive: voice, lyrics, and instrumentation all undergo subtle transformations which, together, amount to something quite new, and newly moving. The album opens with “Jesus Alone”, a slow-burning titan of a song that pulls you in and keeps you there, rapt, for its duration. It is a fitting opening (and first single), as it exemplifies the best qualities of Skeleton Tree and also serves as a good bridge between Cave’s previous albums and this one. Supported by a small orchestra, the Bad Seeds build a drone of static into a wall of sound, underpinned and structured by an insistent siren note. Both their musical dexterity and muscle are on full display. Lyrically, the song unfolds through a series of haunting images—“You’re a young man waking / Covered in blood that is not yours / You’re a woman in a yellow dress / Surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds”—before coming back to the simple chorus: “With my voice / I am calling you.” Cave’s voice, here, is as assured as ever, but it contains a sharp note of pain and grief, almost plea-like at times. His voice is a searchlight casting over a dark sea. One gets the sense that his voice is the only thing holding him together, the only power he has left.

On the surface, this voice seems more unstable than ever on Skeleton Tree. While in much of his best, and best-known, previous work, Cave’s voice was an anchor, deep and dependable—think of “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side” or “Stranger than Kindness”—here it is changeable. In “Rings of Saturn”, the second song, Cave returns to the spoken/sung style foreshadowed in Push the Sky Away, but this time, supported by a stronger beat, he almost raps at moments. “I Need You” is another example. This song is Cave at his most exposed: “Nothing really matters, nothing really matters when the one you love is gone / You’re still in me, baby, I need you / In my heart, I need you.” Coming back again and again to the refrain—“I need you”—he sings the song almost in one breath, in a voice that is unmistakable, but somehow thinner than usual, as if pressed through a funnel. More vulnerable and shakier than before, this well-known voice acquires a completely new power. The combination of the familiar and the new is disarming, breathtaking.

Like Push the Sky Away before it, the sound of Skeleton Tree is expansive and layered. Ethereal backing vocals and subtle string instruments suggest wide-open spaces. “Girl in Amber”, the dreamlike third song, especially creates a feeling of floating or drifting through air. Like all the songs on this album, “Girl in Amber” seems strikingly personal. At one point Cave sings, “this song this song this song this song it spins since 1984”—the year he founded the Bad Seeds along with Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld—and later, “this song this song this song it spins no more.” In addition to the album’s expansiveness, there are pauses in the sound. The fifth song, “Anthrocene”, seems akin to a landscape: a veneer of percussion will suddenly break off, opening up a chasm in the sound, which persists for a few seconds before it heals. These chasms are not silent, but are defined by airy backing vocals and a few structuring piano chords. Because of these ellipses, it took me several listens to discover the beauty of this song; on first impression, it seemed somewhat incomplete. I did not immediately understand that pauses, doubts, and gulfs in understanding are part of the material of this album, not just thematically but aurally.

The shift away from structure and roundedness extends to the lyrics on Skeleton Tree. Though there are of course exceptions, the hallmark of Cave’s songwriting has long been its narrative quality. A great part of his songs follow the logic of the story as much as that of the song. One of the best examples is Murder Ballads (1996), in which numerous songs are self-contained narratives in the traditional sense, with a beginning, climax, and end, and sometimes even a moral. Looser examples of narrative are “The Mercy Seat” and (one of my favorites) “Sad Waters”, both of which, though vastly different in theme and import, are structured by a stable narrative perspective. In One More Time with Feeling, a documentary film by Andrew Dominik released to accompany Skeleton Tree, Cave himself hints at a change in his approach to the lyrics. Previously, he says, he used to edit relentlessly, crafting sometimes intensely poetic, portentous lyrics with the fervor of a novelist. On Skeleton Tree, he suggests, the lyrics are successful for a different reason—in fact, I think, for the opposite reason. Less crafted and self-conscious, the lyrics show a readiness to cede control, and thereby to explore darkness and sorrow in a new way.

The denouement of this short album begins with the penultimate song, “Distant Sky”. “Distant Sky” features a surprise in the form of Danish singer Else Torp, who joins Cave in a gorgeous, aching duet. Unlike the textured voices of previous collaborators—such as PJ Harvey’s smoky voice on “Henry Lee”—Torp’s voice is bell-clear and utterly pure, and turns out to be the perfect vehicle for this song. Like many songs on this album, “Distant Sky” carries an echo of Push the Sky Away, this time of the titular song, which opens: “I was riding, I was riding home / The sun, the sun, the sun was rising from the field.” While that song felt like a tale of individual struggle, however, “Distant Sky” is a song of two (sung by two very different but surprisingly well-matched voices): “Let us go now, my darling companion / Set out for the distant skies / See the sun, see it rising / See it rising, rising in your eyes.” Interestingly, Torp seems to take the lead here, both with her voice and through the impetus of her words. Though Cave begins the song, almost in a whisper—“Let us go now, my one true love / Call the gasman, cut the power out / We can set out, we can set out for the distant skies”—it is Torp who grows this from a wistful notion into a real departure. Helped by slow, soaring strings and vibraphone, the song lifts into a glowing crescendo, making it both one of the most hopeful yet devastating songs on Skeleton Tree.

The presence of the rising sun in “Distant Sky” is so powerful it is almost visual, conjuring a golden gleam in the mind’s eye. A recurring theme in Cave’s work, the forces of nature also play an important part in Skeleton Tree. From the rolling weather front of “Jesus Alone”, to the final, titular song, in which Cave calls out “right across the sea,” the skies and the seas press in on the album from all sides, forming its volatile and ominous backdrop. It seems, though—to this listener, at least—that by the album’s end the view has brightened ever so slightly. With its inviting, warm-hued piano theme, the final song seems a return to a more familiar Cave. One gets the sense, however, that any peace or stability achieved can only be temporary. In the outro, “And it’s alright now...,” the word “now,” rather than bringing a sense of conclusion, seems to highlight the precariousness of the moment.

The brittle stability evoked by the final song is at the heart of Skeleton Tree’s power. Like so much of Cave’s music, the album seems poised on the edge of catastrophe, aware that the surface of daily life can be violated and punctured without warning. Here, though, this familiar mood is inflected with a rare vulnerability. In peeling back the various levels of control—musical, vocal, narrative—that have in the past made their music awe-inspiring, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have made a record that is perhaps less perfect and less magisterial than before, but one that is experimental in the best sense. Allowing the unpredictable to penetrate, and guide, their music, they have emerged more compelling than ever.

 

Mona Gainer-Salim is a writer currently living in Japan.