Bad Seed Ltd.
I wrote a bit about this album (my immediate response to hearing it) and linking it to Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss. It wasn’t just about linking two albums informed by death, it was about the feeling that a first listen to Skeleton Tree invoked; it sent me to Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss album which I would have arrived at anyway because I had been re-reading Reed’s book of lyrics (which I arrived at because prior to that I had been re-reading Cave’s book of lyrics…) here you see are two songwriters also have that punch-the-clock attitude towards prose-writing. It’s a song if it’s a song but if it’s an op-ed or story or script or commentary or writing exercise then it’s that: The Day’s Work. And if it sticks around longer – means something on top of that, so be it.
Cave has long talked about punching the clock, turning up to work, sitting at the desk and running the 9-5 day.
In a way, it prepares you – as much as you ever can be – for when you have to step up to address a crisis, for when you have to carry on where, perhaps, you’d rather not. That habit. That attitude. The front. The stoicism. The commitment to carry on, to deliver.
Skeleton Tree is the album Nick Cave had to deliver and then one he never wanted to make. I’m sure of that. But here we are. If we’re interested in the album we know the horrific story – one of his twin sons, Arthur (15) fell to his death. A 60 foot drop. In Brighton.
This is the album that tells us Cave is still alive.
It is the closest we’ll ever get to a Nick Cave solo album. But it is a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album. That is their solidarity. This is their solidarity.
I’ve listened to this album a bunch of times and it washes over me and I assume that every single word is for Arthur. And if every single word isn’t about Arthur’s death then it is at (the very) least informed by it.
Cave sings like a broken man, rebuilding. He’s captured himself grief-stricken. He’s been through something no parent ever expects and in the documentary that frames the making of this album he and his wife have vowed to be happy; as retaliation. That is their resilience – that is what they will muster. But here we have the sober, sombre undertakings of a father who has buried a son.
In Magneto you hear him say, “the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming” as a bassline moans like a bullroarer. He repeats “love you love” and variations of it as if he’s channelling a tired Van Morrison. He speak-sings his way through the album – even giving hip-hop phrasing to Rings of Saturn.
The opening Jesus Alone is about as Typically Bad Seeds as the album gets – but even so we know the mood is darker and more subdued than ever before. There are lines, almost immediately, about “falling from the sky” – but even so we know. We feel it in our bones before we hit play. We hold ourselves and nurse our way through this harrowing hallway of songs that exist as art in their own right but also as impetus for the artist to continue on, as both artist and human being.
Rings of Saturn has an airiness to it – a lift, a lilt, but it’s still so heavy-hearted. And there’s this backing-vocal loop that feels like it’s come from the hip-hop production playbooks; the piano too. This is more than you expect from a bard grieving and a backing band in support – they’re still deviating from their norm and innovating as they interrogate their own sonic structures.
Girl In Amber is a slow-motion meditation. Anthrocene is the first song after the opening track – and we’re now halfway through the album – where we really feel The Bad Seeds’ might, the rattling percussion and then almost instantly it’s throttled back as if they feel themselves returning to familiar ways and deciding it’s too soon. This is a new/changed Bad Seeds. A grieving Bad Seeds. Cave’s voice is more urgent here, more familiar as it pleads and bleeds across the track.
I Need You lays it out about as emotionally raw and honest as Cave – as anyone – ever has or has ever been.
Distant Sky might be the album’s highlight though. There’s something here just a little bit more special. Cave has his whisper on, the voice he used to startling effect on No More Shall We Part though stripped of any menace and here it’s merely an introduction, he sets up the song and hands it over to Danish soprano, Else Torp. It’s beautiful. It’s like nothing else in Cave’s oeuvre. She gives voice to his pain but not only that we start to hear a hope through the hopelessness.
And then the title track to close the album. The brushed drums tiptoe through the bruised piano chords, plaintive, restrained, fierce. There’s a bravery and stoicism to this album even existing and it’s pared back to the essential elements musically and lyrically.
Push The Sky was the album that brought me back from the brink, fan-wise. This record lines up with it in one key sense – it’s 40 minutes and has just 8 tracks (Sky was also 40 minutes long, with nine songs). This is the album that has brought Cave himself back from the brink.
It’s a towering achievement – both a marking of a moment in time, precious moments, deep grief – and proof that one of the steps to healing, or at least assisting the physical steps in continuing is through the completion of art. It questions our hope and hopelessness; it aims to provide balance. Here it is salve and salvation, it is more knowing and graceful and beautiful than any garish press-conference and more than any parent should have to bear and lay bare. It is Cave’s most extraordinary album and if you never want to listen to it that’s a fair and maybe fitting response. But find some time, let it wash over you, let it bum your right out. Let it infiltrate your soul. Let it show you the channelling of grief. Let it show you the way things can be dealt with; let it show you a beauty impossible to define, a beauty impossible to believe.