Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
Jan 27, 2020 (updated Feb 10, 2020)

"Most of us don't want to change," says Nick Cave in Andrew Dominik's documentary "One More Time With Feeling". "But what do you do when something so catastrophic happens and you change?" It's all "Skeleton Tree" which is summed up in this simple but dizzying question: Faced with the most terrible tragedy a man can experience, the death of his own child, can we remain ourselves? Can we escape from madness, from nothingness, from the complete collapse of all that we believed to be acquired? And if we cannot, where will this departure from our reason lead us?

A departure for another world, a journey of exploration towards the ends of the universe, towards unknown dimensions from which we don't know if we'll come back, that's the first impression, the first vision, which is born from listening to this Nick Cave album. The minimalist cover evokes the icy and infinite space of the cosmos, on which the name of the band and the title of the album are inscribed like data on the screen of a navigation computer. The title of the tracks also refers to this leap into the unknown, this fascinating and a bit anguished world of scientific research and astronomy: "Rings of Saturn", "Distant Sky", "Magneto", or the mysterious "Antrocene" which, by the only suggestive force of a neologism, suggests the silent entry of humanity into a new era. This visceral sensation of travel into another dimension is reinforced by the musical texture of the record : vibrations, drones, electronic layers traversed by rhythmic pulsations, the ebb and flow of strings, sometimes a few crystalline piano arpeggios. A sound universe mixing at the same time the artificial - the omnipresent synthesizers, the robotic rhythm boxes - and the natural - the fragile and aged voice of the singer, some elegiac backing vocals or, on "Distant Sky", the unrealistically beautiful singing of the Danish soprano Else Torp. Listening to Skeleton Tree gives the physical impression of travelling aboard a space ship vibrating with its reactors, throbbing with its electronic systems, resonating with the great cosmic waves sweeping the universe. We are the stowaways on an interstellar arch carrying two embracing human beings, the last survivors of their planet reduced to dust by a gravitational cataclysm.

A little over a year ago, in July 2015, Arthur, one of the singer's twin sons, fell off a cliff not far from the family home in Brighton. Tragic accident whose horror seems to have been compounded by the circumstances: it was under the influence of drugs that the fifteen-year-old teenager died - Arthur, the son of one of the greatest junkies in rock history, a surviving, miraculous junky, now rehabilitated, but who sees Fate catching up with him in a way that is as ironic as it is cruel. Worse than by his own death, it is by his son's death that the Black Crow King paid for his life of excess and self-destruction? Giving birth in such dramatic circumstances, "Skeleton Tree" testifies to the painful mutation caused by the upheaval of his environment. It is at the musical level that the transformation is even more evident. None of the usual gimmicks of the Bad Seeds - these alternating calm and violence, these frightening crescendos, this eruption of punk savagery - could express his suffering. Renouncing all these artistic facilities, Cave then left behind all that made the pop and funky dimension of his music to direct his Bad Seeds to the borders of territories whose previous album, "Push the Sky Away", had only explored the frontier.

For better or worse, "Skeleton Tree" is an electronic music album. A hypnotic repetition of atmospheric loops from which no instrument, no melody, no rhythm emerges. From now on the only master on board, the violinist Warren Ellis, gives free rein to his experimental inspirations. Cosigning all the music, he fills the instrumental space with his synthesizers and industrial loops, leaving little room for the other members of the band - an almost inaudible bass, evanescent drums, a few ghostly guitar chords. The disturbing "Anthrocene" leans towards the avant-garde electronic music a la Radiohead, during the "Kid A" period; other tracks are closer to ambient music or new-age (the bewitching "Distant Sky"). It's on this strange musical framework that the singer's broken voice comes to rest, a voice that's also metamorphosed, overturned, that doesn't give off any other emotion than pain and fragility. It's not even about singing any more, but about an introspective monologue awkwardly landing, sometimes on the verge of tears, on the destructured musical background of the Bad Seeds. The lyrics themselves translate a break, a leap into the void : focused on his mourning, Nick Cave abandons all the joyful irony, the dark humour, to which he had accustomed us, making "Skeleton Tree" an album as heavy, as suffocating, as "Your Funeral... My Trial" and "The Boatman's Call".

Cave also renounces the canonical form of story telling, a way of saying that it is impossible to make sense of what happened. His lyrics are nothing more than a succession of disordered images, hypnotic flashes, both indecipherable and so suggestive that a few words are enough to haunt you for several days. Opaque lyrics at first listening, and at the same time charged with an emotion that grabs you by the throat without you could explain why. Even if, at the time of the drama, "Skeleton Tree" was already at an advanced stage of production, one can't help but interpret Cave's lyrics in the light of his son's death. The first words of the first song - "You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / Near the river Adur" - resonate like a terrible premonition when you know that they were written before Arthur's death. Terrible words which are echoed in the last song: "I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back in"... But also this heartbreaking verse of "Anthrocene" also evoking the fall into the void of a body on LSD ("It's our bodies that fall when they try to rise"). And how can we not imagine Nick leaning over the dying body of his son and accompanying him in his last breath, when, on the vaporous "Girl in Amber", he tenderly chants : "If you want to bleed, just bleed [...] / If you want to leave, don't breathe" ? Even if it is not explicitly evoked, Arthur's death is the dark, invisible centre around which the album gravitates : as he says in the movie about black holes, "It's the invisible things that have so much mass"...

What is also remarkable in these lyrics is the revolting absurdity of this brutal disappearance. On "Jesus Alone", it is the Death itself who calls his son ("With my voice / I am calling you"), anonymous among the procession of all human beings torn from existence without distinction: the junky in a sordid hotel room in Tijuana or the old man next to the fire, but also this African doctor trying to alleviate the world's misery ("You're an African doctor harvesting tear ducts" - perhaps one of the most beautiful verses ever written by the King Ink), or these young girls full of vitality to whom life seemed promised. It is also the exposure of a grieving soul in its vulnerability and powerlessness to cope with trauma. Nothing can indeed console, sublimate, give meaning to this blind death that takes away the guilty as well as the innocent: "You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now" the narrator preaches on the same track. Faith does not survive the loss of a loved one, the nothingness that takes hold of our loved ones takes with it our hope in the infinity of the beyond: "They told us our gods would outlive us", the singer whispers on "Distant Sky", "But they lied". Then, as on "Magneto", only nihilistic violence, the urge to destroy, remains as the only possible reaction to the absurdity of life ("Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming / I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues").

At the height of despair, a mysterious line of peace emerges and, without really knowing why, brings tears to our eyes: "And I had a sudden urge to become someone, someone like you / Who started out with less than anyone I ever knew "... And, suddenly, everything is transfigured into the sweet intimacy of love : "In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you love / I move, you move and one more time with feeling"... We may be touching here the secret, intimate heart of "Skeleton Tree" - as suggested by the choice of this last sentence as the title of the movie accompanying the release of the record. "One more time with feeling": what saves Cave from nothingness are the feelings he has for the woman with whom he has shared his life for almost 20 years, Susie Bick, Arthur's mother. Feelings that Cave discovers in him, in the depths of the disaster, that they have survived and still hang him up again and again to life. It is this love that, in those unspeakable moments, can bring him comfort beyond words and, perhaps, beyond life. "Let us sit together in the dark until the moment comes", invites the singer on "Jesus Alone"; as if it is his wife who, through the voice of Else Torp, invites him in response, on the celestial, ethereal, infinitely beautiful "Distant Sky", to leave this world: "Let us go now, my only companion / Set out for the distant skies / Soon the children will be rising, will be rising / This is not for our eyes". A song that can be listened to like a soothing prayer rising tenderly towards the sky, at the same time sad and imbued with universal gentleness and compassion...
WhatTheFunk's Tags
Jan 27, 2020
When this song of farewell ends in a silence of recollection, all that remains is the boundless love for his wife, for human beings, for Creation in its most painful and sweetest form; the tragic acceptance of fate. "And it's alright now", thus ends the last song of the album, "Skeleton Tree", using the same words that Sophocles' Oedipus utters when he thinks that "all is alright » despite everything. Words that still echo Nick Cave's lyrics at the end of "One More Time with Feeling": "Susie and I have decided to be happy. Like an act of defiance "...
Jan 27, 2020
...Skeleton Tree, at the end of its journey through icy space, still offers a destination, a refuge, a place of peace. Nick Cave has changed, ravaged, transformed by the death of his son. Yet, amidst the ruins of his being, in the rubble of his suffering, he discovers in the love of his wife a part of himself that has survived, that has remained intact. We are left with the moving image of this couple embracing in the empty room of their missing child, sharing their grief and love under the phosphorescent stars on the ceiling ("We saw each other in heart and all the stars have splashed and splattered 'cross the ceiling'")...
Jan 27, 2020

Yeah, the emotions are real.

Jan 27, 2020
Best tracks : "I Need You", "Distant Sky (feat. Else Torp)", "Skeleton Tree", "Rings Of Saturn", "Girl In Amber", "Jesus Alone", "Magneto".

Worst track : "Anthrocene" (If I had to pick one)
Jan 27, 2020
Your words marvelously reflect the delicate nature and beauty behind a record like Skeleton Tree. It's one thing to replicate your stage of genuine mournfulness and sorrow in the form of music, but the true beauty, I feel, presents itself in the form of reconciliation and redemption, how you choose to proceed on and seeing the good and hope amongst all the pain and devastation. In death, with grief, there also comes celebration. While those in the physical realm mourn your passing, the idea of you moving on to the afterlife, the next realm, without the ills and stresses of this world, is, in a way, something worth admiring and celebrating for. I think overtime, this is something Nick Cave comes to the realization of in the last song and Ghosteen. Despite the untreatable wounds, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel...Yeah, the emotions are real...
Jan 27, 2020
*starts a slow clap*
Jan 28, 2020
@Inglume Thank you very much for leaving these few words under my review, it complements it perfectly. I just wanted to add that it was very difficult for me to rate this album as it's actually impossible to judge this objectively. The idea of reducing this record to a single number seemed to be as derisory as it is indecent because even the words don't manage to fully describe the emotional power of this. And you're absolutely right, through these 2 (at first glance) depressive albums, Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, Nick Cave actually offers us a great message of love and hope and it will give us the strength to move forward when the time comes for us to go through the same ordeal.
Feb 8, 2020
how does someone top a review of this caliber? truly remarkable write-up, my friend. very well done!
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