It will cause no great controversy if I say that Nick Cave has been writing about love and death for most of his career. If The Birthday Party were the gleeful rictus grin of the Grim Reaper, then later work with the Bad Seeds saw him embrace grief as a response, rather than savage laughter. For me it’s The Boatman’s Call when this shift really takes place, as if ever since then he’s tempered his wicked observations with a knowledge of the responsibilities and consequences of both. Skeleton Tree takes this sensibility right to the edge of the void and, wiping away a tear, kicks it into the darkness.It’s a hard listen, for sure. Uneasy listening, as it were. Forged in the white-hot fire of personal tragedy, it’s the sound of a man scorched by the world. The cackling laughter has stopped and all that remains is an overwhelming sadness. This much we know. Most of the songs were already written before his son’s tragic death. One apparently wasn’t… but we don’t know which one that is. It’s impossible not to look for clues. So while in a literal sense it’s not an album about his bereavement, that loss haunts his delivery and performance. And the Bad Seeds have never sounded more loyal.
Through all their changes and transformations, they’ve always played up the image of band as gang, and listening to Skeleton Tree it’s hard not to imagine Warren Ellis saying “Look, guys, the boss is grieving. We’re gonna be there for him. Play it like motherfuckers”. And they do. From the drone abstractions of “Jesus Alone” to the haunted balladry of “Magneto” to “Rings Of Saturn”, with its Cope-style “whoo whoos” and tinkly Blade Runner synths, they sound every bit as intense and broken as he does.On my first listen, I felt awkwardly guilty, like I was intruding on something I was never meant to witness; it’s raw and naked, shivering but warm. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that this is what grief itself sounds like. The nervous percussion of “Anthrocene”, the sheer stumbling confused pain of “I Need You” (“Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone… I will miss you when you’re gone away forever”).
In an odd and kinda morbid way, it makes a good companion piece to the other saddest album of 2016 so far, Bowie‘s ★, except Skeleton Tree mourns a death remembered rather than a death foretold. And if there was nothing more Bowie than dropping an amazing album and then dying, there’s definitely nothing more Nick Cave than finding oneself at the height of one’s powers when in the very depths of despair.Quite frankly it’s a masterpiece, though that will doubtless be of little consolation to the man himself. Arriving at work after my first listen I found people kept asking if I was OK. Sometimes what you put in your ears comes out on your face. I was in a daze. I still kind of am. God knows how many playthroughs I’m on now but I still can’t even.
I don’t know what I really expected from this album. I honestly can’t remember; the actuality of it is so whole and seamless a thing it’s hard to imagine it being any other way. Right from the second that first drone starts pulsing on “Jesus Alone” to the hymn-like title track and its closing, passionate “but it’s all right now” that’s more of a fervent wish than a description, it’s one of the most beautiful tours of a personal Hell you will ever undertake.