It’s hard not to approach ‘Skeleton Tree’ as an album with an elephant in the room, a malevolent loiterer whose presence is liable to dominate and distort the listener’s entire field of vision. Nick Cave started work on his sixteenth Bad Seeds album well before the death of his 15 year-old son Arthur in July of last year, but whatever ‘Skeleton Tree’ was supposed to be, it’s now become his public response to that single, life-altering tragedy.
Andrew Dominik, director of the companion documentary One More Time With Feeling, has spoken of the ‘instinct of self-preservation’ behind Cave’s decision to make the film, and you suspect that same instinct is why ‘Skeleton Tree’ begins in the manner it does. “You fell from the sky and crash-landed in a field near the river Adur,” Cave intones on the hypnagogic drone of Jesus Alone – as shattering an opening line as you’re ever likely to hear, and one which gets the unsayable out of the way early. Never again does Cave reference his son’s death so directly, but the reverberations of that event are felt throughout. ‘Skeleton Tree’ is an album forged in the aftershock.
No other record released this year will provoke such conflicting emotions in you. ‘Skeleton Tree’ is both beautiful and harrowing, hard to listen to but even harder to look away from. Cave is a master of narrative songwriting, but here, we’re afforded voyeuristic glimpses into his own torment: “The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming/ I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” he confesses on Magneto, while the gorgeous Girl In Amber is haunted by the appearance of “your little blue eyed boy” and the admission that, “I knew the world would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone”.
The music is sparse and restrained, sometimes bordering on ambient – see ‘Anthrocene’, whose dissonant ebb and flow is dictated by spectral piano chords and irregular waves of percussion – though not without flashes of beauty, and even hope. Cave’s own state of disarray is contrasted with awe at his wife’s resilience – “This is what she does and this is what she is,” he sings on ‘Rings of Saturn’ – while Danish soprano Else Torp’s vocal on ‘Distant Sky’ acts as a kind of balm against the sting of grief. As wondrous as ‘Skeleton Tree’ is, there are moments where you’ll inevitably question what you, the listener, are getting from it – reassurance? Empathy? Enjoyment? Yet this is not an album for the rest of us; it’s a reflex reaction to a torment most people will thankfully never have to endure. It goes back to that old instinct of self-preservation: just as a shark must keep moving, so an artist must keep working, even in the face of unimaginable loss.