“Even in the context of unmitigated tragedy, Nick Cave’s album reminds us that a song is a sign of life….”
NICK CAVE – SKELETON KEY (Bad Seed Ltd)
By Andrew Tanner
My friend Shane used to say the key to getting Nick Cave was his sense of humour. ‘He’s a funny guy’, he theorised ‘and a lot of his so-called Gothic doomy-ness plays off a real dark sense of humour.’
Skeleton Tree may be Cave’s starkest album, stripped bare of any humour. Impossible to separate from the very real tragedy of his son’s accidental death in 2015, here was doom visited large upon the master of the doom anthem. While most of the basic tracking and vocals on the album were actually completed prior to Arthur Cave’s death, their final shape must have been moulded by those awful circumstances.
On early listens to this, the 16th studio album from Cave and The Bad Seeds, sonorous is the word that comes to mind – a deep, resonant sound issuing from a subterranean place. While the lyrical themes will be familiar to fans – the elements of sea and sky, loss, religion, death and fading love – musically the new tracks avoid the iconic Bad Seeds wall of furious sound, opting instead for restrained, ethereal spaces that serve to highlight that unmistakeable voice.
Renowned for summoning up the depths of human feeling, on this album Cave has never sounded so emotional. Like Johnny Cash on his later American Recordings albums, we hear a voice where hard won experience seeps through every crack and quaver. It’s impossible not to be moved by a lyric like ‘nothing really matters when the one you love is gone’ on the stark ballad I Need You. On the desolate, desperate Girl In Amber he sings of ‘your little blue eyed boy’ and a phone that ‘rings no more’.
Long-time collaborator Warren Ellis provides much of the album’s soundscapes via keyboard and drum loops, and a diverse palette of ambient sounds. On the tense opening track Jesus Alone synths moan and throb, overlaid with a keening bird-like melody and martial drums. Elsewhere on tracks Magneto and Anthrocene stark piano chords, disembodied fluttering electronica and scraping violin notes create a sombre atmosphere. As has been noted elsewhere, these are songs far distant from conventional structure, more impressionistic tone poems – beat poetry written for life’s great comedown.
Yet Skeleton Tree isn’t all heart of darkness. There’s a tender beauty to be found in Distant Sky, a slow-moving elegy shared with Danish vocalist Else Torp that recalls some of the icy grandeur of Sigur Ros. On the meditative closing title track, the very last lines Cave delivers are ‘it’s alright now’. Granted, it sounds more like stoic acceptance than anything more joyful.
As a song cycle centred on mortality, loss and what it takes to just stay standing Skeleton Tree is up there with Johnny Cash’s Hurt or Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind in emotional punch. Even in the context of unmitigated tragedy, Nick Cave’s album reminds us that a song is a sign of life, a flicker of hope and sometimes, a way to speak the unspeakable.