Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree

Few artists are anything like Nick Cave. He’s a legend, but still with something of a cult following. He was tied to this or that scene in this or that place over the years, influenced these other ones, but never feels that closely linked to one era or locale. Nick Cave is just Nick Cave, over there doing his thing, which you may love or may not pay much attention to. And what you might miss, if you’re in the latter camp, is a career that is extremely rare. There was never any sort of sustained downturn in Cave’s output. He has masterpieces evenly distributed throughout the decades. Look at how the guy has spent his 50s so far: two vigorous Grinderman records, plus the Bad Seeds pairing of the revitalized Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2008 and the gorgeously world-weary Push The Sky Away in 2013, either of which can easily stand alongside older classics like 1988’s Tender Prey or 1994’s Let Love In. We’ve come to expect consistently impressive and surprising material from this guy. We expect monumental works, stuff that’s unlike what anyone else is doing, a story and catalog that remain hard to place in any neat narrative aside from Cave’s own. But Skeleton Tree…I don’t know. This is something else entirely.

Last year, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur tragically died by falling off of a cliff in Brighton, England, where Cave and his family live. Back in June, it was announced that Cave & The Bad Seeds would release Skeleton Tree this month, accompanied by Andrew Dominik’s making-of documentary, One More Time With Feeling. The plan was to screen the film on Thursday, 9/8, and release the album the next day. No advance streams, none of the usual stuff: just that stark black cover, and all of us able to hear the music for the first time together in a movie theater. Despite bits of Skeleton Tree dating back to 2014, there was no question going into it: This album and film were going to be about Cave losing his son. Given the depths of the human soul he’s explored throughout his career, it was easy to imagine the result here being, well, heavy. To say the least.

In recent years, Cave had already found a certain latter-era gravity in his music. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and Push The Sky Away were still anchored by the Americana imagery Cave has often favored, but rather than the Gothic America of his earlier work, it had now taken on a pseudo-hallucinogenic quality. Myth and realism mingled when Cave told Larry’s story on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!‘s title track, or when he reached one of the climactic moments of Push The Sky Away’s “Higgs Boson Blues,” when Miley Cyrus was floating in a swimming pool — the line always scanned like he might have been saying she was floating dead in that swimming pool. By virtue of it being a meditative record released by a man in his mid-50s, Push The Sky Away automatically appeared to be a record taking on mortality. In music and lyrics alike, it had the sound of someone looking at a sprawl of years, taking in a wide range of experiences and moments, and filtering them into a humid combination that felt more lived-in, more real, than the hyper-driven intensity of his younger days, while also being more ethereal. Like he’d aged into some noir-prophet he was always destined to be.

Despite the general feel of the album, it also raged against the passing of those years. On the album’s standout “Jubilee Street” — one of his finest songs ever, as well — he proclaimed “I’m transforming/ I’m vibrating/ I’m glowing/ I’m flying/ Look at me now/ I’m flying/ Look at me now.” Live, this part would escalate, building so that Cave ran around roaring “Look at me now!” repeatedly. It was catharsis, it was transformation. Then, you had that album’s finale, its title track. There was a sense of dread there: “I got a feeling I just can’t shake/ I got a feeling that just won’t go away,” delivered in barely a whisper. But each couplet was followed by the recurring instruction, “You got it, just keep on pushing, and keep on pushing, and push the sky away.” You could take it a particular way, Cave’s depiction of a useless Sisyphean feat. But even in its funereal arrangement, “Push The Sky Away” didn’t register as a conclusion. It capped off an album that showed an artist deep into his career still locating a well of inspiration in the world surrounding him. It wasn’t defeat at the end, depleted as it appeared. There was defiance here, an image of transcending mortal boundaries, the idea you could leave a mark permanent enough that a world unaware of you as an individual would remember you when you’re gone.

Then Skeleton Tree happens. That’s where the sky pushes back and says “Fuck you, you’re human.”

Had Cave’s new album not had the overwhelming context of being the first album he’s released since the death of his son, there are ways in which you could see it as a logical extension of Push The Sky Away. Lyrics about death, falling, loose debris in a life that’s gone on long enough to accrue a tangled network of turns this way or that — all that makes sense after the mortality of Push The Sky Away. Structurally, Skeleton Tree’s songs are similarly meditative and restrained, but even more so than on its predecessor. Many of its songs are evasive in form, refusing to cohere, or taking several listens before their melodies situate themselves in your head.

These days, there is so much noise to cut through. The narrative of an album can garner as much, if not more, attention than the actual music therein. These narratives can enrich a work, give it a sense of weight and scope that a “collection of songs” might not have otherwise. But they can also be a burden. They can overshadow the actual work. Everybody focuses on this one tragedy in your backstory, and you’ll forever be that character, defined in accordance to that event. When an album comes with a narrative like Skeleton Tree’s, it’s that much more extreme. With Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling, Cave has given us two works that are a naked and raw look at people in the wake of unimaginable trauma. How do you even approach an album like that? How can you even consider it as an album, and not something beyond a piece of packaged music meant for commercial consumption? It’s almost impossible to listen to something like this with unbiased ears, without considering the life-altering circumstances that yielded it.

Again, some of this music predated the death of Cave’s son. In One More Time With Feeling, they actually allude to that; Cave mentions his wife Susie Bick’s superstitious streak (which she mentions, too), and how she looked at some of the music Cave had been working on and, in hindsight, saw chilling prescience there. Regardless, now it’s hard to listen to any of it without reading into everything a certain way. The opening line of the entire album, in “Jesus Alone,” is “You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur.” (Look at where the River Adur is on a map of England. Look at where Brighton is.) Or how about “It’s our bodies that fall when we’re trying to rise” in “Anthrocene.” In “Magneto,” Cave intones, “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/ I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” which would’ve been a brooding non-sequitur on a previous Bad Seeds LP, but if you watch One More Time With Feeling, you learn about Cave’s perception of minute daily experiences and tasks in the wake of Arthur’s death. These lines become pregnant with unspoken meaning. Nowhere on Skeleton Tree does Cave explicitly talk about his son dying; he isn’t an autobiographical writer like that. And in One More Time With Feeling they talk around the matter for two-thirds of the movie’s running time. Even then, it’s more about the aftermath, not the immediate days surrounding it. Both the album and film live within this long shadow, shaped by this event while not totally returning to the event itself.

Musically, Skeleton Tree is sparse and spectral. These are ghost songs where things come in and out of focus, hissing together and leaving you thinking “Wait, was that really there? Did I actually hear that?” Several songs have little to no percussion, and when it is present it’s often low in the mix. On “Jesus Alone” and “Anthrocene,” the drums are a distant, staggering clatter, like struggling heartbeats getting lost under the boiling clouds that is the rest of the instrumentation. Through much of Skeleton Tree, the dominant mood is anxious churn. There is a surprising reliance on synth textures across the album, and they are of a haunting tonality and motion — they gurgle and flicker, then drift like a lost ship on a sickened sea. Warren Ellis, the co-captain of this iteration of the Bad Seeds, provides heavy, bleeding strings and broken electronic transmissions. Like signals interrupted, cut short. There are counterpoints, like the cooing background vocals that appear on many of the songs. It’s not always clear whether they represent actual solace, or whether they are siren calls — the deceptively calm element amidst the devastation that surrounds them.

It’s easy to talk about Cave’s music in blanket terms. It is “dark” music. But in the past Cave was more interested in macabre, sleazy, and morbid stories. He was interested in violent outlaws and characters who lived on the fringes of society. He could adopt these characters, and dial them up into a lurid, cartoon villainy. Like The Boatman’s Call and Push The Sky Away, Skeleton Tree is actually a work of subdued beauty, though more fractured than those precedents. Across the album, Cave’s voice is fragile and wandering, often tremulous and on the verge of breaking. Cave has always been a commanding presence on his records, screaming and bellowing; as he aged, he intoned, imbuing his songs with growing wisdom. That’s no different here, but his delivery is captivating for precisely how he negates his usual power. He sing-speaks, meandering through a song like “Magneto,” circling back to the line, “And one more time with feeling…” over and over, as if he’s still trying to sort out the words as they’re being committed to tape. This isn’t the same man who reveled in the shadows, who gleefully dug into the seedy and twisted corners of humanity, living comfortably in society’s squalor. This is an aged man searching through the night, trying to relocate some sense of meaning after one of the cruelest surprises the universe can send your way.

Opening track “Jesus Alone” was the first song we heard from the album and it is a startling piece of music. Beginning in media res, already in a hazy distorted cloud, pierced by that high electronic whistle. (Judging by footage in One More Time With Feeling, that sound is the result of Ellis manipulating a pedal). There is an unnerving hypnosis in how the song operates. It feels as if the tension should be relieved at some point, as if the storm should break, but it never quite does. Instead, it’s a slow, festering storm out over the coast, threatening to erupt, but instead just sitting there, inviting you in. And once you enter, well… “Jesus Alone” is one of those songs where the particular arrangement of notes seems to harbor some awful power that you want to look into, want to experience, but know you shouldn’t unleash on yourself or anyone else. As soon as the song begins, you are in a different world. You’re looking at the skeleton tree dead-on. Your mood and perception shift, out of your control. It recalls how “The Mercy Seat” opens Tender Prey: Both are songs where a series of foreboding elements layer and cluster and teeter on explosion. “The Mercy Seat” does eventually give way to a wild-eyed madness in the litany of its climax. “Jesus Alone” never does that. It begins and ends without you, like you just caught a glimpse of something enigmatic and terrifying, then looked away.

The lyrical direction of that song shifts as it goes on — Cave addresses someone in a series of “You are…” or “You do…” statements, but they range from the opening line that could allude to his son, to an “African doctor harvesting tearducts.” But where it hits hardest is when he seems to be addressing himself, questioning belief in God (“You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator/ Don’t you see”) or in the part where he says “You are an old man sitting by the fire/ You are the mist rolling off the sea.” You are vapor, impermanent. It’s a bleaker portrait of the mortality on Push The Sky Away, especially as Cave’s chorus is him trying to break through the static maelstrom of the track: “With my voice, I am calling you.” Is that addressed to his son? His family? Himself? It’s likely nothing so literal. It could be all of that, and none of that. Either way, “Jesus Alone” functions as the overture to the themes and imagery of Skeleton Tree. For the rest of the album, there are repeated references to changing, losing a sense of yourself in the wake of something terrible, which is one of the central theses of One More Time With Feeling, too. In the film, Cave also talks about how he doesn’t believe in narrative anymore, that life doesn’t have resolutions. “Jesus Alone” opens Skeleton Tree with that belief. There is little clarity or conclusion to it. He is still calling out amongst the same storm by song’s end. He’s calling out to whomever; maybe himself, as he loses his grasp and sees himself becoming the old man by the fire, unable to shake the directions his life has taken. This is the drone. This is the vacuum.

Strikingly, the album then drops you into a very different place with “Rings Of Saturn.” The most synth-drenched track on the album, it’s a twinkling glimmer of hope that acts as an immediate salve to the unrelenting void of “Jesus Alone.” You’ll read that Skeleton Tree is an unflinching, bleak album, all gray skies and meaninglessness. But that isn’t entirely true, not after you spend more time with it. There are these other moments, where hope creeps up. “Jesus Alone” is beautiful in a disquieting way. “Rings Of Saturn” is just beautiful and ruminative, with Cave, in nearly a spoken-word delivery, tumbling through a jumble of words over the welcoming waves conjured up by the band behind him.

The album cycles back and forth between these places. There is the dark core of Skeleton Tree, “Magneto” and “Anthrocene” back-to-back. The former is the one with the aforementioned formlessness — in Cave’s vocal delivery, in the lyric, in the music. He wants to kill someone in the supermarket queue, he sees himself vomiting in the bathroom mirror. “Anthrocene” is unnerving non-pulse, occasionally letting slivers of sunlight in through the clouds. But those sit right before “I Need You,” a track that can be perceived as sad, even nihilistic — “Nothing really matters, when the one you love is gone” — if not for its affirmation. It’s a heartbreaking love song, the central reiteration of “I need you” anchoring the whole thing. Again, Cave references being in a supermarket. There are recurrences, dark moments balanced with ones that might be bright. There are those scenes, like the supermarket, where Cave hones in on the smallness of moments. He measures the weight of a simple day doing perfunctory things, and how alien even rote actions can begin to feel in the face of severe trauma, severe loss. Some of those days can be won, some of them can’t. And this cycle goes on, much like Skeleton Tree wraps back around, a depiction of people finding themselves in the same place, physically and spiritually, that they’d been in earlier in this process.

And then the album closes with the faintest of sunrises. On “Distant Sky,” Cave nearly whimpers the lines “They told us our gods would outlive us/ They told us our dreams would outlive us/ They told us our gods would outlive us/ But they lied.” But he’s answered by Else Torp’s healing guest vocal. The song plays out like half-lullaby, half-hymn. It would be an obvious closer, if not for the title track that follows. “Skeleton Tree,” like “I Need You,” is one of the more traditional songs on the record, a mid-tempo contemplation that, in this instance, comes after the catalog of wreckage on Skeleton Tree. Aside from the skeletal tree lending both the song and album its name, there are other images of death, or of the end of things — the fallen leaves thrown across the sky, the echo coming back empty across the sea. But while Cave might not receive answers in the song, it plays out as if he’s answering himself. He was calling out throughout “Jesus Alone,” and he’s still calling out in “Skeleton Tree.” The tone is different. There is some modicum of peace. Some reckoning. He sings, “It’s all right! It’s all right!” amidst the shudder of “Anthrocene,” near the album’s lowest point emotionally. In contrast: the closing refrain of “Skeleton Tree,” and thus the album, is “It’s all right now.” It sounds like gospel music.

If there is anything remotely like Skeleton Tree that has come out this year, it’s David Bowie’s Blackstar. Both are relatively short works that come with impossible magnitude. It isn’t possible to listen to Blackstar without being impacted by the knowledge that Bowie died only days after, after a long private battle with cancer, and that Blackstar’s own reckoning with mortality was a very conscious final bit of performance art. It, in turn, changes how you listen to everything else in Bowie’s career, knowing that it all leads up to one last cosmic dialog. This is the power of the narratives that surround albums. Bowie’s death will forever overshadow, define, and enrich Blackstar simultaneously, just as Skeleton Tree, and likely anything that follows, will be impossible to disassociate from the death of Cave’s son. Similarly, it also shifts everything about him. Now we’ll listen to his whole catalog knowing that this turning point in his life occurs. We’ll listen to The Firstborn Is Dead, and we might still love it, but its atmosphere will feel like a horror B movie in comparison to what comes three decades down the line.

Even now, I’m narrativizing these people as public figures, I’m narrativizing their careers. But the point is that these kinds of works are something so outside of what you typically come across in pop music that it’s difficult to figure out how to even think about them in relation to anything else. How does a record about a bad breakup sound after you listen to an album by a man whose son died just over a year ago? It’s incredibly brave, and in some ways selfless, that Cave has released this. This is a glimpse of a man in the wake of a grief that’s hard to comprehend, a chasm that irrevocably alters not only your life, but the way you experience and frame each memory, the way you are as a person, how you operate and perceive and move within this world. It’s the sort of art that changes you, too, in ways you can’t begin to understand in any small fraction of time.

There’s that thesis in One More Time With Feeling, an excerpt of which was the voiceover in the film’s trailer:

Most of us don’t want to change, really. I mean, why should we? What we do want, is sort of modifications on the original model. We keep on being ourselves, but just hopefully better versions of ourselves. But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic…that you just change. You change from the known person, to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognize the person that you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.

In the film, this monologue goes on much longer, with Cave describing a series of scenarios — one of which is being in line at a bakery, another is a shopkeeper asking how he’s doing; again, supermarkets. The overarching image is of Cave talking about needing to “renegotiate your position in the world” after having this sort of trauma and loss occur in your life. A need to relearn how to operate. This is what’s so stunning, so resonant, about Skeleton Tree. It’s a public form of grieving, yes. That would make it harrowing enough. And it has tiny moments of hope, too, making it incredibly moving. But it’s the depiction of people still changing, still sorting through these things. It’s the depiction of those left amongst the ashes, and what happens next. That’s what makes it such a difficult but powerful record to listen to, that’s what makes it a work of art entirely unlike most albums we hear.

An album that begins with the image “You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur,” and closes with the assurance that “It’s all right now.” There’s a journey there. Skeleton Tree, despite what it would be reasonable to expect, is not simply entrenched in suffering. But it also doesn’t strive for some false, comforting resolution when there isn’t one. Of course it isn’t all right now. How can everything ever be totally all right after you lose a child, a person you knew for 15 years and would’ve had every hope and belief would outlive you? There must be days that sound like “Jesus Alone” and “Magneto,” there must be days that sound like “I Need You” and “Skeleton Tree.” That’s the journey: having to return to this moment, this loss, and then learning to carry on and find happiness after it. It’s life-affirming without being reductive. The idea that even after irreparable grief and damage, you can overcome. You don’t forget it. You learn to exist with it.

Skeleton Key is out now.