Nick Cave never had to release an album dedicated to the loss of his young son, but he made the decision to both relive that awful event and articulate it. In a perverse way, who better than Nick Cave to explore this kind of tragedy? He’s always been able to master the gloom and sadness, but before it had a cartoonish violence to it, or at best it was the secondhand sadness of his post-2000 albums. But now it’s personal and it’s very real. It’s a shame that Cave had to go through this in order to write one of his best albums, both sparse instrumentally but vivid and heartbreaking lyrically. It’s the most understated he’s been, a world away from Murder Ballads and even Push The Sky Away sounds full and vibrant compared to this. Subtle suits Nick Cave more than he knows. He has a tendency to come across as a caricature, and before it’s suited him well, but when it comes firsthand it has more impact.
The Bad Seeds side of Nick Cave’s band has been tasked with lurking behind Cave as he spills his guts, not overwhelming instrumentally but providing a sonic companion. They never crescendo above Cave, and for good reason. They work in small, considered moments, only rarely rising, such as the tugging strings on ‘Girl In Amber’, the harrowing backing vocals on ‘Rings Of Saturn’ and Else Torp on ‘Distant Sky’. Warren Ellis, now Cave’s right hand man since Mick Harvey’s departure is master of synthesisers, loops and strings, but never breaks into anything that might resemble abrasive. It’s not like they are doing nothing because it helps Cave deliver his point, they are just toning it down to the point where it becomes more ambient on ‘Jesus Alone’ or film soundtrack-y on ‘Skeleton Tree’. On the album highlight ‘I Need You’, both Cave and the Seeds get the opportunity to really explore their role. Ellis contributes heavy synths, Thomas Wydler donates a slow beat on the drums and Nick Cave delivers one of the most astounding and heartbreaking songs he’s ever written. It’s easy to interpret the song as an ‘I Need You’ to both his son and wife, but I saw it as a complete tribute to his wife. He needs her in order to get through the loss. Only in the final line, ‘Just breathe / I need you’, did I see that as a direct plea to his son. Would this song have as much impact if we didn’t have the context behind it? Perhaps not, but the reality is that it has happened, so to completely divorce it from the lyrics would not be getting a full picture.
The less direct songs in the album still deal in vivid imagery of life and death. On ‘Magneto’, Cave sings ‘I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl’ and the line ‘My blood was for the gags and other people’s diseases’ I saw as Cave breaking the fourth wall, singing about his pain being used by listeners in order to empathise and respond with the same emotions. Once more in the song he sings another metaphor – ‘All the stars have splashed and splattered across the ceiling’. This is where Cave turns into more poet than songwriter. It’s never cliche, and the metaphors are always meaningful and original enough to be interesting – ‘All through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns’. That line in particular I think is Cave imagining that people are laughing at his loss, which was a bit like his line ‘My blood was for gags’.
Skeleton Tree really did blow me away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, or whether it would be too close to the bone, but the Seeds have depicted loss in a subtle and considered way. It doesn’t hold back in sadness or anger and questioning, and what else would you expect from Cave. He looks to God and he looks to his wife, but he also looks to apparently meaningless objects like a jittery TV or a skeleton tree. On the last track – the title track – there is an ounce of hope in the song, when Cave sings ‘And it’s alright now’. But then again, when he sings ‘Nothing is for free’, it could either be hope that the loss won’t be for nothing, or his cynicism of the world and gifts that he might be bestowed, such as children. The track is a slight moment of pause against the grim backdrop, and even though it doesn’t end on a happy note, it certainly shows movement towards something that might resemble hope. One of Cave’s finest moments, and his Bad Seeds too.
Funnel Recommends: Magneto / I Need You / Skeleton Tree