Luke Turner On Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Skeleton Tree
, September 15th, 2016 07:03
In the sixteenth full-length recording from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Luke Turner finds perhaps their most perfect musical expression of horror, its realism and sense of inevitability overpowering usual tendencies toward the baroque, and a powerful lesson in empathy
There he is on the big screen, with an incredible suit and improbable hair, that familiar whip-thin silhouette with the hands that dive from sharp shoulders to emphasise the end of a line. Yet this is no longer Nick Cave as we've known him for over three decades — as a conjuror and illusionist, a godfather to lurid inhabitants of an oily netherworld, a master of gesticulation rock songs about sex and mortality, faith and hate. Don't forget that the earliest incarnation of The Bad Seeds was called Nick Cave - Man Or Myth? The arrogant Australian geezer goth Nick Cave is no more, though the truth is he'd been on his way out for a while. As his voiceover intones in One More Time With Feeling, Andrew Dominik's documentary shot during the recording of the band's 16th studio album, "my doctor says I look like a battered monument".
In a year of tough and weighty records, Skeleton Tree is the heaviest of all. Beyoncé's Lemonade is an act of defiance. Bowie's Blackstar in the end felt like a triumph, the final beautiful gesture of an artist who had succeeding in making his death as much of a statement as the rest of his life - who never lost control. Skeleton Tree, though, appears to us despite (and through perhaps) the worst horror any human can endure.
As you'll probably know, the film that accompanies the album, One More Time With Feeling, was shot during studio sessions not long after the death of Nick Cave and his wife Susie's son Arthur in a tragic accident in 2015. I first heard the album while watching that film, and so powerful is the connection between the two works that they've become rather indivisible. I'm not convinced that making the film was merely a canny way of avoiding speaking to the press around the album release - everyone would have understood a refusal to do interviews. He's too disciplined an artist and (based on impressions over the last decade or so) too good a human to have done all this because he's mining some awful cliché about tragedy and creativity of the sort that myopic, egoist buffoon Amanda Palmer was only only too happy to exploit in The Guardian. As much as anything else, this is a project about professionalism, the need to create art and the impossibility of it always providing solace.
I've seen some say that because it is connected with such a raw subject Skeleton Tree is beyond discussion or criticism. Others have expressed surprise that it was even made. Yet the rest of us have to go back to work soon after a bereavement, and Nick Cave with his office hours and fearsome productivity is no exception. It'd be ludicrous for me as an outsider and a critic to explore this record through ideas of catharsis and redemption - only Cave himself, perhaps with his family, are qualified to do that. As he says in the film, life goes on around the tragedy, which is walled off, a place to which he cannot go, and one to which we are certainly not welcome.
Yet there's something odd about all this. Nick Cave has always written about death, his songs full of murder, execution, apocalypse, betrayal and so on. His entire artistic output has been shaped by the the death of his father when he was 19. As he wrote in his collected lyrics, "I found that language became a poultice to the wounds incurred by the death of my father... the loss... created in my life a vacuum, a pace in which my words began to float and collect and find their purpose". Skeleton Tree isn't an album written about the death of his son, the majority of the music and lyrics were written before it happened, but it is entirely shaped by it.
A Skeleton Tree without that terrible event would surely have sounded utterly different. It's largely a progression from the thoughtful atmospherics explored on 2013's Push The Sky Away, and the two feel entwined in more than just the music. I remember hearing it for the first time since I learned of the death of Nick Cave's son and was floored by just how uncomfortably prescient some of the lyrics are — something touched upon in One More Time With Feeling, wherein Cave discusses his wife's "superstition" about the words he pens. Just look at the last album's 'Jubilee Street' and the exultant lines "I'm transforming / I'm vibrating / I'm glowing / I'm flying / Look at me now / I'm flying". The manner of his son's death cloaks them in an eerie horror. 'Jesus Alone', released unexpectedly the week before the film and album were made available, was at once a startling listen. Sunset rumbles of Warren Ellis noise float on cloud wisps of strings, Nick Cave's opening line "you fell from the sky" an instant punch to the guts; "Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers" suggesting that birth is not an innocent process but a traumatic one, for in the arrival of every child is the threat of their untimely death.
It's not the lyrics that make Skeleton Tree such an emotional listen, but the manner of the delivery. In a particularly striking scene from One More Time With Feeling, Cave discusses his dislike of recording overdubs: "I think I'm losing my voice," he says. "File it under lost things. My voice, my iPhone, my judgement. My memory." He talks about taking up smoking again. He frets about not warming up his voice before recording. But in grief, any grief whether in death or love, the voice is there to wobble, break and to tear us and those we care about in two. On 'Girl In Amber', too, Cave sounds much older than his 58 years, the words crackling around the edges like ancient paper. He sings "The song, the song, it’s been spinning now since 1984", the year of the first Bad Seeds album: is this about a new fragility for his muse? If so, rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated — "You turn, you turn, you kneel lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy / Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall" is, and I think unfortunately is the correct word here, as perfect a vision of gothic horror as Cave has ever written. Sung as he does it, his voice teetering around an edge, it makes for a terrifying, heartbreaking song. On my third listen, in a bright warm room with sun streaming through slatted blinds, it reduced me to wracking sobs.
Yet voice alone couldn't have done this. The jaunty swing that has characterised much of The Bad Seeds' music up to now is gone, and Skeleton Tree is as sparse and experimental as they've ever been. It's fairly dirgelike at times, which of course is not a criticism. It's important to point out that One More With Feeling has very funny moments - it's as if Warren Ellis and Cave can't help themselves. Their mutual admiration, fizzing with humour, is and has long been a rather lovely thing to see. I still recall the first-ever Grinderman gig at ATP when Cave flunked the opening note, and had to get Ellis to help him out - "Warren, can you tune my guitar?" And, when a missile flew from the crowd onto the stage Ellis picked it up, showed it to his bandmate, and said "'ere Nick, some cunt threw an apple!". From Roland S Howard in the Birthday Party through Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, Cave has always seemed to need a musical sparring partner to knock him in strange directions. I have a suspicion that without them he might just end up tinkling away on the ol'joanna a la The Boatman's Call. Through Grinderman and their soundtrack work, straggle-haired funny fucker Ellis has proved himself to arguably be the greatest red right hand of all, perhaps because they seem so utterly at easy with each other.
Those moments of levity in the One More Time With Feeling are, I suspect, what helped everyone through the process and allowed this to be made. As Cave mutters in the film, "what would I do without Warren? Look at him there, holding it all together". Ellis' brutally stark KORG synth parts and string arrangements, aided by the ever-subtle instrumentation of Jim Sclavunos, Martyn P Casey, Thomas Wylder, and newish guitarist George Vjestica, hold the rawness of Nick Cave's voice in just the right place. At times this is The Bad Seeds haunting their former selves, entirely familiar but somehow absent. The capacity of this band for ferocity has defined their brilliance over the years, but this stripping back is not a simple quietening, more its a subtle deconstruction with the discord still present somewhere deep in the mix. In their playing and arrangements you can hear the empathy of the rest of the group for their friend.
Over two decades with Nick Cave, his Bad Seeds and his Grindermen as fairly constant companions I've loved them for their pomp and drama, their ability to make some of the most outré and libidinous rock & roll ever committed to tape, a drinking band for smart shaggers. Halfway through the reviewing week I listened back to the feral abandon of Grinderman and breezily askance humour of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! before returning to the Skeleton Tree . I'm not sure if I've ever heard such a palpable difference in an artist's work in this short a time, heard the performer undergo such a stark transformation. The conviction is still there in every line, of course, but it's not a performance, perhaps not even intended for us in the conventional dialogue of how we're accustomed to consume rock & roll. In One More Time With Feeling Nick Cave speaks about his fear of being exposed by words, but at times Skeleton Tree has him naked and trembling for all to see. In many ways it's all quite simple. Something terrible happened to a man and his family. He soldiered on, kept going to work - and this is the result.
One of the most affecting passages in One More Time With Feeling comes when Cave is discussing the strange things that grief will do. That a friend in the street whose shoulder you cry on isn't actually a close friend at all, the feeling of eyes looking on with in a supermarket queue. "I must remember to be kind," he says in voiceover, sounding almost surprised yet determined. That's his gift here, his lesson to all of us. Skeleton Tree and the film have become statements about grief, loss and the potential and failure of art, but in the brutal honesty of broken emotion there's a promise to anyone who hasn't yet lost a close family member just how impossible that is going to be.