“I think I’m losing my voice,” admits Nick Cave in his latest film, One More Time With Feeling. “Just file it under lost things. My voice, my iPhone, my judgment, my memory… Isn’t it the invisible things that have so much mass?”
As his latest album’s companion film unflinchingly acknowledges, the tragic death of his son Arthur Cave last year sits heavy at the centre of this album like a crow on a telegraph wire. This is not ‘griefsploitation’, nor is it creative therapy or an exercise in tackling writer’s block. This is the sound of one of the world’s greatest wordsmiths struggling to type away his inner turmoil; a fruitless effort when even his subconscious can’t get a grip on exactly how he feels. Each of the eight tracks present on ‘Skeleton Tree’ is a gaping wound, a chink in Cave’s hardened carapace that is able to let out a little of the churning ink inside.
The ringmaster who once governed his own dark internal carnival with a firm hand is no longer. Nick Cave has always relied on his mastery of words to make sense of the world around and within him, but now when he calls out his ‘echoes return empty’. Having his world fall off its axis has not just irreversibly changed Nick Cave, it has aged him. His concern about his voice is not just figurative. His distinctive baritone, once capable of leaping from keen-eyed stalk into full-body pounce at the flick of his tongue, now it drags itself pitifully across ragged bracken, cracked and vulnerable. “Nothing really matters when the one you love has gone,” he croaks on ‘I Need You’ like a crumbling gargoyle delivering its tower-mate’s eulogy. This vocal transformation betrays an apt, if tragic, pathos in his vocal chords, a mirror of loss that reflects his tragic sense of personal inadequacy onto his songs.
This rapid ageing process is all the more obvious when compared to ‘Push The Sky Away’, a record that, despite its late addition to the Bad Seeds’ corpus, is perhaps the most youthful work he has ever produced: a wide-eyed entreaty that reminded listeners about the importance of retaining the passion and imagination of childhood throughout adolescence and into adulthood, keeping one’s parameters infinite in the face of a world of buzzkills and witch-hunters. Opener and sole single ‘Jesus Alone’ addresses this legacy head on by killing off ‘the young man’ and switching the focus onto his father, the ‘old man sitting by the fire’. God, Nick Cave seems to be suggesting, is guilty of being an irresponsible father too.
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The one-time goth icon has always had an obsession with death, but you always get the feeling that it was the funereal aesthetics and religious pageantry that surround death that fired up his imagination, not the very real holes the departed can leave behind. This re-evaluation of death’s true victims is dealt with directly on ‘Girl In Amber’ where Cave admits that he “used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber ‘til you crumbled and were absorbed into the earth / Well I don’t think that anymore”. The romance of death is dead to Nick Cave, replaced instead by the bleak confusion of a diminished life.
Continuity, as well as change, is of vital importance to ‘Skeleton Tree’s identity. Having Cave step back from the composition process in order to wrestle words from his demons leaves a creative void, allowing his loyal lieutenant and chief Bad Seed Warren Ellis to delve deeper into his fascination with fusing strings to rippling electronics. The less structured approach the pair pursue draws highly from their soundtrack work on the likes of The Proposition and The Road, but with the gloominess turned up to 11. Insectoid cello drones lurk just under the surface of ‘Magneto’, threatening to burst upwards and swarm over the song at a seconds notice. The oceanic ‘Saturn’s Rings’ brings to mind the work of Mark Lanegan’s sideman Alain Johannes on last year’s ‘Phantom Radio’, demonstrating the near psychic link between Ellis and his devastated friend and frontman that has strengthened since he replaced Blixa Bargeld as Cave’s core songwriting partner.
There’s a moment in 2014’s 20,000 Days On Earth where Nick Cave has a prolonged, possibly hallucinatory discussion with Kyle Minogue in his car. She is enthusiastically recalling her first impression of him on stage and gets lost for words trying to describe his body language before concluding, lamely, that it was ‘Like a… Like a… tree.” It’s an odd but accurate comparison. It’s easy to imagine the looming Australian as a gnarled beech tree caught in a storm, the horrific sort with branches you might glimpse the disembodied faces of ghouls and hobgoblins in. He’s an artist who thrives on the uncomfortable, whose roots feeds greedily on the darkest cuttings of the world around him and whose unnatural beauty stems from his vividly written illustrations.
When lightning strikes a tree it becomes stone-like and petrified. Death does not diminish its beauty, and the remaining split stump is far more haunting than any fleeting, imagined monster that once could be glimpsed on its now lifeless boughs. There are no more stories on ‘Skeleton Tree’, no more fascinating tragedies designed to inflame the imagination. There is just Nick Cave, stripped to the bone and robbed of a future. It’s impossible to turn away.
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Words: Josh Gray