Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

Album Reviews
09/14/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

The cover of Skeleton Tree, the sixteenth studio album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is the most minimal and least revealing artwork of their career. Against a black backdrop in computerized font, the title of the record glares menacingly like the stuck screen of a heart rate monitor. It's quite ironic actually, given that the album's release was paired with a one-night showing of One More Time With Feeling, an Andrew Dominik-directed 3D black and white documentary surrounding the creation of the record that gives audiences the most intimate and vulnerable look at Nick Cave that fans have ever had. Steering away from the narratives of his past work, Cave allows Skeleton Tree to occupy more ethereal, impressionistic space, while Dominik is the one providing the storyline. If any of these facets of Skeleton Tree's existence surprise or confound you, there's good reason for it: Nick Cave is a different person now. "Events transpire", he explains in the film, "and you become a different person. You find yourself doing things you would have never done before. You have to struggle all over again to find your place in the world". In this context, Skeleton Tree serves as the soundtrack to Nick Cave's rebirth. Given the trauma that transpired during the record's production, it is filled top to bottom with grief and doubt. But as the album rounds the corner into its final stretch, Cave pulls back the curtains of his heart and chooses to place value on love. Skeleton Tree is a harrowing, deeply human journey, as much a tale of paradise lost as it is a testament of the darkness we can withstand and conquer.

Though it's doubtful history will remember it as such, it's important to note that most of the basic track recording and writing for Skeleton Tree was done prior to July 2015, when Cave's son Arthur passed away. One More Time With Feeling, the album's companion film, tells the story of the album's final mixing and overdubs, and shows the impact that the event has made on Cave and his family. But Skeleton Tree is not an album made in response to the event, and thus, the approach to the album must start as a theme following that of Push The Sky Away. Here, where "Hannah Montana does the African Savannah" and sings the "Higgs Boson Blues", the sky comes crumbling down on those not paying keen attention. The itching feeling to self-victimize among the downtrodden and disenfranchised in a town square plagued by media cannibalism is so real and present, and yet, as Cave does on the cover of the record, you have to pull the curtains back to reveal the human underneath all the wreckage. In many ways, Skeleton Tree follows directly down the same dark path that Cave began on Push. On "Jesus Alone", Cave resonates with the Christ wandering the desert as the Devil coaxes him to indulge in his divinity, drawing comparison to every witch doctor and drug addict who has equally faced such a temptation. In this spinning world of images, Jesus himself becomes a character not unlike those seen on Cave's "Jubilee Street", learning to push the sky away like the rest of them.

Cave bookends the album with themes of temptation, starting with "Jesus Alone" and ending with "Skeleton Tree". In Once More With Feeling, Cave reads a poem from which most of the lyrics to the album's title track (and closer) are harvested, where he describes a garden far from the one we know from the Old Testament. He describes how through media overexposure, the snake became a "serpent" and somehow, a skeletal, withering tree grew enticing fruit. "There were many trees", Cave wonders - why the focus on this one? Why make it such an example? On the album, Cave juxtaposes the tree with a "jittery TV", both "pressed against the sky". The connection can't be a coincidence. Through temptation, our efforts to push the sky away are just a sales pitch for some promise of importance or meaningfulness. But if it's all a deception - a media power move stretched through the annals of history, then where do we draw our worth?

Throughout the album and the film, two people provide the anchor that Cave needs to keep him tethered to his own spirit: the long-time Bad Seed and primary collaborator Warren Ellis and Cave's wife, model and fashion designer Susie Bick. Throughout Skeleton Tree, you hear Ellis's brilliant, anxious, and highly atmospheric arrangements guiding the most aimless wanderings in the wilderness. What he accomplished with tracks like "Jesus Alone" and "Anthrocene" is among some of the best material of his career. In the film, if you see Ellis on his guitar, it's rarely sitting down and jamming. It's far more likely you'll see him endlessly tinkering over loops and effects on his board, or choosing the violin or synthesizer or conducting a quartet instead. When he isn't recording, Ellis is Cave's musical other half. He finds the hopefulness in Skeleton Tree's massive undertaking in grief and sorrow. He jams through "I Need You" like it's a revival tune, coming to the turn of the chorus each time with a shining will that you can't help but believe in wholeheartedly. It's in these moments that you can see how Skeleton Tree is about believing in the spirit just as much as it is about disbelieving the lies.

Where Ellis plays the Virgil to Cave's Dante, Bick provides Skeleton Tree's Beatrice, not limited to the story's love interest, but rather, its focal point and its guiding light. In the wake of the void that is finding worth beyond the skeleton tree, Cave casts many of his feelings of doubt and denial onto an unnamed female protagonist. On both "Rings of Saturn" and "Girl In Amber", Cave describes a woman finding the place - exactly the place - where she was born to be, yet somehow trapped in the hall, searching for a way out. Following the narrative, Cave and a lover go through the motions into dangerous waters on "Magneto", where the pent up denial begins to eat away at the underlying humanity. Flipping to side B, the introduction of "Anthrocene" parallels "Jesus Alone" with a similar song structure and general feel of improvisation, except now, Cave's character is no longer alone. Wandering the wilderness, he finds himself hand in hand with another, equally destitute in grief, anxious waiting for the flood. This, of course, leads us to the crowning moment of the record, "I Need You", where the weight of the sky pushes down on Cave to the breaking point. He no longer seeks truth, but instead, seeks escape. "Nothing really matters" - it's a sentiment echoed like a mantra throughout the six minute burner. But each time it circles around, it seems to take on a new meaning. First, nothing matters "when you're feeling like a lover". Second, nothing matters "when the one you love is gone". And finally, "I need you because nothing really matters". It's almost as if, throughout the song, Cave is going through the grief process step by step. There's no mystery to why, in the film, Warren Ellis lays into his guitar so gleefully. Even in the pain, he can see that his friend and partner is working through the pain to find a greater understanding of his own love on the other side.

As Cave shows us on Skeleton Tree, and as he himself learned in the tragedy of his son's death halfway through the album's production, our worth is found in how we, amidst trauma and chaos, choose to retain our humanity. Near the closing of Once More With Feeling, Nick Cave gives his final word on the matter of the record, and it's not the one you expect. "I set out to make the record the way I suppose most artists do", he ponders, "thinking I'll make something of great importance". But, he explains, given the vastness of the universe, and the impossibly small sliver of time we are given on this planet, who are we to say that we are doing anything of importance? Like Job before the Creator, being asked where he was when the heavens came into being, Cave feels the weight of his own fleeting nature. So what is it that makes us unique in the universe? "Human consciousness", Cave explains - that's the source of our potential to do something real. Not lasting - because nothing does - but something real. In this realization, the sky no longer feels heavy. Only then can we set out for distant skies.

Skeleton Tree is out now on Cave's own Bad Seed Ltd. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Currently, there are no plans for a wide release of One More Time With Feeling, but check back to Cave's website for any such release in the future.

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