Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Skeleton Tree

It’s been interesting to observe the reaction to the release of Nick Cave’s sixteenth studio album The Skeleton Tree. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with many interpreting the record as Cave’s way of dealing with the harrowing and tragic loss of his 15 year old son Arthur in 2015.

It’s been labelled a ‘raw document of grief’ a means for Cave to ‘process his pain’. This, despite the fact that Cave himself has insisted that the songs were written and the recording of the album had commenced before the heartbreaking death of his boy.

And yet fans and critics alike pore over the lyrics, disassembling them, looking for clues, seeking the link. And yes, many of the songs reference death, a world abandoned by God but any fan of the music of Nick Cave would know these are common themes that he has returned to time after time, album after album.

So are we saying that Cave managed to make the Skeleton Tree in a vacuum, free of the influence of what must have been the single most impactful and traumatic event in his life? Not quite. The spectre of that tragedy casts a heavy shadow over this album, perhaps not so much in the lyrics, but in how the music is packaged, performed and delivered.

From the stark, unadorned album artwork to the bleak, wintery image of its title, The Skeleton Tree groans under the weight of Cave’s heartbreak, and nowhere is that more noticeable than in his vocal performances and the spare, skeletal arrangements. Cave has never sounded so world weary – on the beautiful ‘Magneto’ he sings ‘one more time with feeling’ over a scraping, dissonant background; the effort is palpable, he drags the words out from the depths of God knows where. ‘On ‘Anthrocene’ he muses ‘All the things we love we lose…’ perhaps the central theme of this record.

The desperate, pleading ‘I Need You’ is so unlike the Nick Cave we know from previous records; the swagger of the showman is gone to be replaced by a vulnerable, broken soul, pouring out his heart. The effect is dramatic. He follows this up with ‘Distant Sky’,  a duet with Danish soprano Else Torp and perhaps the emotional centrepiece of the record. Cave sings: ‘they told us our Gods would outlive us, they told us our dreams would outlive us, but they lied..’ over a mournful musical backdrop, and a growing sense that this might be his masterpiece, the album he will be remembered for.

None of us can know for sure whether  the Skeleton Tree represents the sound of an artist exposing his grief to the world or a musician doing what he knows best – writing songs, composing music, adhering to a discipline that has been part of his life for so long now. Whatever it is, the Skeleton Tree is an incredible piece of work, an album pockmarked by sorrow and a deep sense that life and art are more precious than we could ever comprehend.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)