Skeleton Tree dissected
by Jeffrey Thiessen
At the end of every year, I start getting emails from editors asking for contributions for various end of the year lists. I don't generally do these anymore - not as any kind of virtuous rule, it has more to do with the fact I'm just not very good at compiling lists these days. Put it this way: I wouldn't last too long at Championship Vinyl.
But that doesn't mean I don't like them, in fact I routinely scour the web and examine a high number of these lists just to make sure I didn't miss anything substantial on an annual basis. Of course I will miss things but if you look at enough of those lists, it can create the peaceful delusion you are at least covering most of your bases. This year was no different- got the emails and like always, reflexively my brain synapses start firing around debating who/what I would pick if I did submit these lists. As I gave it some fairly trifling thought, I came to a couple conclusions. Firstly, 2017 was one of the more forgettable years in music that I can recall. But more importantly, I realized that I should've gotten off my ass at the end of 2016 and slammed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Skeleton Tree at the top of every single one I submitted.
I don't want to reduce the awesome power of that album to a compare and contrast scenario. After all, I loved it the first time I heard it in autumn of last year, and it's grown on me with every subsequent listen since then. But having said that, the devastating dominion of that record seems to be amplified, even more staggering when it's held up against what has come out since that fateful day in September 2016. Nothing even has come close, and instead of being pessimistic and slighting an entire year, I'll go the other way and assume the weight of Skeleton Tree just was too monolithic to properly compare something like, the latest National record release to, for example.
Preceding Skeleton Tree was another bonafide Cave classic, Push the Sky Away, a searing and strangely driving statement born out of an almost necessary minimalism. By the time PTSA rolled around, gone was Blixa Bargeld and his spiked boots (long gone, actually), but more significantly this was the first album sans Mick Harvey, a founding member and multi-instrumentalist who many considered to be irreplaceable. Yup, this wasn't the same Bad Seeds your ma and pop warned you about. With jittery dirges and even flirting with some eerie trip-hop beats, this certainly can't even be mentioned casually in the same sentence as the Grinderman releases. PTSA wasn't exactly anti-rockism, but not far off either. Smart money was likely on it falling flat on its face but this was a stunning record. "Jubilee Street" alone ranks among the strongest tracks Cave has recorded and "Higgs Boson Blues" isn't far behind.
Skeleton Tree came out three years after that and essentially follows the basic blueprint of PTSA, but mutates the framework into a heap of raw sonic materials, anatomizing abject horror one faces when their teenage child dies before their sixteenth birthday. We'll get to that more later, but as you've probably gathered, Skeleton Tree is not exactly a record that'll get you laid. And if it does, you may want to scour your partner's fridge for human heads.
If you've heard the album or you've seen the recent brilliant documentary on the creation of Skeleton Tree, One More Time With Feeling, none of this will come as a great shock to you. If you haven't, this is jarring music, even for longtime Cave fans. Skeleton Tree can be justly divided into two halves, a buzzed out, slightly abrasive first section, followed by a commitment to tragic, ambient beauty that closes the album. "Anthrocene" at the midpoint bridges the two immaculately. By the time the next track and surefire heartbreaking highlight of Cave's recording career "I Need You" kicks in, we feel the storm ending, although now with clear skies the casualties washed up on shore become achingly obvious.
As I alluded to previously here, there is a narrative that has followed/haunted Skeleton Tree since it came out, and it has to do with the death of Cave's fifteen year old son Arthur, after taking a dose of LSD and falling off a cliff in Brighton. I understand the temptation to attach the onslaught of grief in Skeleton Tree to this traumatic event in Cave's life, but most, albeit not all music on the album was written and recorded prior to this. This is not to say Arthur's death had no impact on the album, it's very safe to assume the entire feel and production is inextricably linked to this. And what it really comes down to is it's fundamentally impossible to listen to Skeleton Tree and ignore this context. There is a pure despondency here, but it seems to be attached to a fall from grace, the tragically sad characters he clearly laid out on those eighties and nineties Bad Seeds album have now become alive in a literal, corporeal shift. The tangible switch to the autobiographical is outlined in album standout "Distant Sky," "Call the gasman/cut the power out/We can set out/we can set out for the distant skies." It would be easier for him to skip to the shut down and let us fill in the blanks, but he is in lockstep with us every inch of the way.
I can't speak for everyone, but as a longtime Cave follower, this sidestep was exciting in the sense that the Bad Seeds did succeed in finding a new and rewarding identity in the post-Harvey phase of their career. I admit and acknowledge relief just based on that alone. But once you get beyond that, the music itself is exhilarating, and not in a gross voyeuristic portal capacity. Skeleton Tree does not wallow in grief, but it does honestly exist in a realm where heaven and hell aren't interchangeable, but there is an overlap that is uncomfortable at the best of times, savagely isolating at the most difficult.
It's impossible to really know just how Skeleton Tree bubbled up to the surface. Sonically there is a loose progression from Push the Sky Away, but more or less this is an island. Nobody could've predicted this record, and a part of me thinks that's part of the inherent appeal here. Skeleton Tree comes as a shock to even the most seasoned Cave follower. This is an album of loss, of navigating chaos, and making friends with stagnant memories. He has clearly learned a lot since the last release, and but it's brutally apparent he's learned one thing above all else: irony has no teeth, at least no longer in his world. There is a new centre at the heart of his music, and he can no longer hide his pain through various characters in his songs.
There surely are critics of Nick Cave. I can't imagine what they would look like, or how they could live with themselves, but if I did meet one, I'm fairly certain what they would say. They would call him superdramatic. A macabre pose that lacks any discernible sense of humour that takes his listeners down a one dimensional march into his dark and extreme vision of allegorical conflict and elaborate poetic sincerity. I suppose that's fair. And while all these are also precisely the approach Cave's adherents find so appealing, to be more specific, it is his surgical accuracy. His music, especially on Skeleton Tree is dramatic. But it's also a brilliantly authentic and precise portrait of a singer who has long ago given up the flimsy hope of conventional beauty in his life and has begun to accept a distorted prism of an existence that carries the credibility of a survivor. There is no hyperbole or false sense of modesty. Instead, we are forced to experience every note as though it was the last and most sincere offering he's put to record.
In a way Skeleton Tree sort of reminds me of Bowie's The Next Day release, in the sense that both felt the safest in the past with a mask on, and with both of these releases, the curtain was pulled back and we're left to peer into the darkness. On Cave's, the madman, the machine, the animal, all crumple into a singular heap. The abyss stares back at us, and welcomes us in. After all, Cave isn't chasing ghosts, he's found them and wants to show us around. He kept them at a safe distance his whole life, and now they have found a way in. Seein is believin.
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