Album Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (2016 LP)

Sometimes a piece of art becomes so intertwined with a contemporaneous event that true, unbiased analysis becomes impossible. Just as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was erroneously seen as a response to 9/11, and Bowie’s Blackstar became his swansong, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree comes in the wake of a tragedy.

Halfway through the writing of the album’s material, Cave’s teenage son died in devastating circumstances. Cave threw himself into creating Skeleton Tree, perhaps as a distraction from his grief. The process of recording the album was documented in a documentary, One More Time With Feeling, directed by Aussie Andrew Dominick.

It’s tempting to view all of this as some sort of voyeuristic window into Cave and his family’s grief, but it’s important to remember that the lyrics were largely complete before Cave’s personal calamity. Besides, the album doesn’t even directly mention ‘the incident’ – it’s much more than a simple eulogy.

We begin with “Jesus Alone”, in familiar Nick Cave territory: full of depictions of gruesome men and sublime natural scenes, the song is basically a continuation of the gothic theme Cave has adopted since time immemorial. But something is different – there is real pain and bitterness in his voice – nihilism is no longer a stylistic technique, it’s a mode of thought for the singer.

In the documentary, Cave notes that normal people ‘don’t want to change’ themselves, they’d prefer ‘improvements upon the original model’. However, when a truly traumatic event occurs, ‘you change from a known person to an unknown person.’ This point is forcefully rammed home in the music of Skeleton Tree. The “skin” is still there – gloomy, droning music reminiscent of Push The Sky Away, Cave’s last album. But the personality has somehow changed beyond belief. Where Push The Sky Away (and Cave’s previous music in general) was dark, there was always a sense of irony involved, along with a certain warmness.

In Skeleton Tree, particularly in the tracks, “Jesus Alone”, “Anthrocene”, and “Magneto”, there is no levity at all; merely pain. Cave’s voice is also familiar yet somehow strange – the baritone is still there, but the sound is weaker, more fragile, more vulnerable.

It’s this vulnerability that makes tracks like “I Need You” and the title track so gorgeous. These tracks, along with “Rings Of Saturn” try to find some light at the end of the tunnel of grief, mostly through the love of family. The standout track for me however is the discordant “Anthrocene”, an discordant and gloomy track where each musician seems to have been given the part to a different song. On repeat listens, a subtle melody starts to come to the surface, while Cave’s ambiguous lyrics seem to be talking about environmental catastrophe, or catastrophe in general.

While not exactly easy listening, Skeleton Tree is somehow a beautiful album that is somehow classic Cave and yet not – his heart has been broken to the extent that his music may never be the same. But while he has lost so much, Cave has not lost his genius – this is a masterpiece in his already stunning back catalogue, an album designed for contemplative and attentive listening.

Review Score: 9 out of 10. AU-APPROVED

Skeleton Tree is out now.