By far the darkest album in an oeuvre of base impulses.
Nick Cave has rarely been known for his sunny disposition; even his most upbeat songs tend to be caterwauling leaps into the perspectives of madmen and killers. But his grim musings have never had the inspiration that informs his 16th album with the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree. Partially written before the accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, the album is fleshed out around this unspeakable tragedy, and the despair and pain that runs through the record marks it as by far the darkest album in an oeuvre of base impulses.
The first line of opener “Jesus Alone,” “You fell from the sky/ Crash-landed in a field,” makes direct reference to Arthur’s death, but from there the album quickly settles into a general reaction of grief and processing. More arresting is the track’s production and arrangement, which rumbles out on a sustained, heavily compressed drone as Thomas Wydler taps hi-hats somewhere on a neighboring continent and a brief synthetic whistle occasionally chirps from the murk. In a preview of things to come, Cave does not sing so much as recite poetry with a slightly musical lilt. Cave’s throaty baritone is always a delight, which might explain why he withholds it for much of the album, instead choosing a delivery that sounds as if the lyrics are being conjured in real-time even if the lines quickly leave behind the concrete in favor of abstracts like “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see.”
“Rings of Saturn” swaps the drone for chiming keyboards, but an underlying squall of noise primes the listener for Cave’s ruminations on death. So caustic are its thoughts that even sex, or the creation of life, is curdled, with Cave talking dispassionately of “spurting ink all over the sheets.” “Magneto” clearly displays the style that Cave has honed separately with multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis in their various film scores together, all scraping strings, ample sonic space and heart-rending intrusions of acoustic instruments. Perhaps the most directly addressed song on the album, it traverses grief’s instant responses of rage (“Oh, the urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming”) and sorrow (“And in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink/ And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns”).
Elsewhere, Cave clearly struggles to move forward with his life, even as he continues to slip back into mourning. “Girl in Amber” has the elegance of the Bad Seeds’ most carefully composed ballads, but the singer continues to experiences flashes of memories, like lacing up his son’s shoes as a child while engaging in a loose, resigned conversation with the dead, advising “If you wanna bleed, just bleed” with such tenderness one can hardly bear to listen. “I Need You” is completely drained, though Cave does properly sing, albeit with a wavering, weak voice leagues away from his usual theatricality. The most pleading song he has ever written, it is the account of a man who has tossed aside elliptical poetry to express a simple, overwhelming desire.
Remarkably, Cave manages to also use the album to experiment. “Anthrocene” is akin to a usual Bad Seeds song with the volume muffled, retaining all the intensity of the band’s usual wall of noise while placing their buzzing instrumentation at a distance, then warping and distending around Cave’s clusters of spoken lyrics. This is the closest to Scott Walker that Cave has ever come. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “Distant Sky” is beatific in ways that even the band’s most lush arrangements have never been. Mallet percussion gently spikes soaring tone clusters of organ, while soprano Else Torp sings hopeful lyrics about rising in contrast to Cave’s enduring nihilism. The closing title track extends the same contrast of hopeful instrumentation and conflicting lyrics, though here it sounds less like a scabrous hymn and more like a spectral version of country.
Ever since releasing the first Boys Next Door/Birthday Party records at the top of the ‘80s, Cave has remained one of the most mutable, and consistently great, recording artists in the world. He hits so often, it’s easier to pick out the misfires than the classics. Skeleton Tree is a grueling listen, situated between the artist’s somber acoustic recordings and the pummeling noise of his post-punk frenzies, but he retains the most chilling elements of each, distilling them into a harrowingly spaced soundscape that projects the void of his sadness. Like this year’s other great death-infused masterpiece, David Bowie’s Blackstar, Cave’s latest is both an avant-garde benediction and a striking push forward for a constantly advancing artist. But along with the album’s hopeful final line, one can take heart from the fact that Cave is still here to keep pushing himself, musically and emotionally.