Monday, 10 October 2016

Skeleton Tree: one more time with sorrow

Harrowing,daunting, intense...immense

Most listeners will approach Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' latest instalment with a very specific frame of mind; indeed, most, if not all, reviewers will bear that in mind when carefully analysing and stripping bare the ins and outs of an album that is as demanding as emotionally daunting.
The reason for all of this is, of course, the dramatic event that turned Cave's life upside down, the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur last year (
So we are all well aware, Skeleton Tree is not going to be a barrel of laughs; very few songs by Nick Cave songs are, really. Over the years, he and his band have become skillful masters at singing about death (though unlike now, it was about other people's) and the darkness, the raw and the gritty. All of this wrapped up in Cave's twisted poetry that produced haunting images.

The album opener sets the mood for what is to come next; the brooding intensity of Jesus Alone, which finds Nick Cave prophetically singing "You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur" (the song was written before Arthur's death), over layers of guitars that create a tense, eerie, almost suffocating atmosphere. This is in stark contrast with "Rings of Saturn" with Cave sort of rapping rather than singing, lightening things up a little before moving on to what is one of the most harrowing moments of the album with "Girl in Amber", a lovely yet painful song that deals with the emotional scars that such a terrible event brings to a couple. The girl in amber is, admittedly, Nick Cave's wife Susie Bick ("if you want to bleed, just bleed"); the song ends with Cave almost crying, his voice drowned in fragility ("don't touch me"). The sorrow and the anger show up in "Magneto" as he confesses "the urge to kill someone was overwhelming" and the insurmountable daily chores he has to face, "I had such a hard blues down at the supermarket queue"  while the next track "Anthrocene" seems to confirm the artist's interest in drawing parallels and metaphors based on ideas and theories coming from the realm of science (just like "Higgs Boson Blues" from 2013's Push the Sky Away did). "I need you" is perhaps when Cave deals with his son's death more openly and it is also one of  the most poignant moments of the whole album; for him,"nothing really matters anymore" since the night in which they "wrecked like a train". Hard not to be moved by such honesty and grief. In "Distant Skies" Cave is joined by Danish soprano Else Torp and together they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel as they set out for distant skies. This catharsis is somehow confirmed by the last track that gives name to the album- Skeleton Tree-  that ends with Cave acknowledging that "it's alright now".

"If you want to bleed, just bleed" 

Thus, Skeleton Tree sees and artist that is able to deal with and purge his demons, laying bare his feelings about a devastating event whilst producing an album of an intensity and honesty rarely seen in today's popular music. Leaving aside the all-too-hard-to-ignore leitmotif that hovers over it, this is a giant step forward in Nick Cave's output, and that says quite a lot about one of the most consistent artists around. It is also noteworthy the influence that Bad Seeds' violinst Warren Ellis plays on the album.
Time will of course tell, but right now I see Skeleton Tree as one of the best albums this Australian bard has ever released and definitely one that will duly show up in the lists of the best albums of 2016.

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