By Chris Ricci
Sometimes in life, the most beautiful things are the most painful, and Nick Cave has made it a life mission to find the beauty through the pain. For decades, Nick has been hiding in the shadows and recounting what he sees while, at the same time, experimenting with how he conveys this to his audience. Last year, when tragedy struck his family and he lost his 15-year-old son in a tragic accident, it was unclear what would happen to Nick Cave, and many thought this would be a conclusion to an illustrious career. However, earlier this year, it was revealed that Nick was working on an album before his son had died, and that it was also completed. What would this sound like? And how would it feel?
The Skeleton Tree is Nick Cave & The Bad Seed’s 16th album, and arguably his most minimal album in nearly 20 years. The Bad Seeds themselves are at their most minimal in ages, notably missing two core members, but despite this, band-leader Warren Ellis manages to make the album sound lush despite the lack of members and the over-abundance of feeling. His previous album, Push The Sky Away, proved to be a massive undertaking and pulled inspiration from the fourteen albums before it both in presentation and in sound. The Skeleton Tree is the exact opposite of this one, and finds a more realistic pairing with The Boatman’s Call: Nick Cave’s 1997 album that also served as a systematic destruction of the post-punk sound he took decades to build in an attempt to find himself. Instead, this time, Nick Cave is desperately trying to find meaning in a seemingly empty world.
And the world of The Skeleton Tree does indeed sound desolate and empty. The opening abrasiveness of Jesus Alone grabs listeners and thrusts them into a sonic post-apocalyptic scene complete with a clanging loop of unknown origin and Nick Cave pushing back against the sounds with fast-paced lyricism unlike anything he has ever released. The title, a reference to the biblical verses on how Jesus often retreated to total isolation to pray, serves as a gut-wrenching introduction to the overarching theme and spontaneity of an album crafted in isolation while trying to find any sort-of semblance of reality. Though, through the abrasiveness, there are instances of beauty. Once the sounds of the first track break, the somber and longing Rings of Saturn bring the listener back to Earth, but only for a short period of time. The claustrophobic lyrics of Girl With Amber cling to and tighten their grip while the lyrically self-aware Magneto features Nick oddly chanting “one more time with feeling” after each line in the chorus. This degree of self-awareness permeates through the rest of the album and is most evident in the brutally heart-breaking Anthrocene. Titled after humanity’s effect on the climate and the environment, Nick effortlessly forms a heartbreaking narrative through this concept and turns the idea of environmental cataclysm into a lamentation on the world he once knew.
There’s a lot of destruction in his lyrics on The Skeleton Tree, and the chaotic scope of the music on both Jesus Alone and Anthracene act both as a startling call to attention while listening to the album and as a sonic manifestation of the sudden changes in life. These changes also manifest themselves in his voice which, as the album progresses, becomes more and more strained against the mournful backdrop of his emotional descent. The track I Need You is the most notable and volatile example of this as Nick’s clanging against the piano keys is joined with him nearly squeaking the chorus “I need you, I need you” over and over as the music slowly melts to nothingness. This pain and emotion is what makes the second half truly remarkable, as the final two tracks act more as an emotional rebirth as opposed to a descent into total obliteration. Nick trades off vocals with Else Torp on Distant Sky whose Enya-esq vocals rise with positivity against Nick’s repetitive chorus “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.” The titular closing track acts less like a closer and more of an opening of a new life. Juxtaposed on the abrasiveness of the image of a skeleton tree, Nick finds hope and beauty in his surroundings and ends this heartbreaking journey to the end of the world with the repeated line “and it's alright now.”
The Skeleton Tree is a work of staggering genius that is unlike anything Nick Cave has ever done in his career, and probably never will again. Nearly four decades of searching and tragedy have resulted in his magnum opus, and to a man who has lost so much, it’s a hollow victory This is a portrait of an artist that has seen an incredible amount over his career, but was still torn down abruptly and suddenly by unthinkable tragedy and heartbreak. Though, through the ashes of his loss, him and his band managed to take the misery and anguish, plant it in the ground, and meticulously take care of the soil so that what grows in it’s place is as beautiful as what left this world in the first place. If there’s anyone that can find incredible and detailed elegance and beauty in such terror and heartbreak, it’s Nick Cave.