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Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree (Album Review)

Thursday, 15 September 2016 Written by Laura Johnson

Photo: Kerry Brown

In July of last year, Nick Cave lost his 15-year-old son, Arthur, in a tragic accident. He was already working on a new record, the follow up to 2013’s ‘Push The Sky Away’, and the completion of it was understandably thrust into turmoil.

Cave admits in the album’s accompanying film, One More Time With Feeling, that the trauma put a stop on his ability to create. Though moments of such magnitude offer dark inspiration for some, he believes that inspiration needs room in which to invent. Tragedy, though, can also fill that space, making it almost impossible to put pen to paper.

It’s of small surprise, then, that throughout the film and ‘Skeleton Tree’ there are clear signs of insecurity. As Cave sits alone in the studio trying to recall the nearly completely improvised Jesus Alone, he worries he’s losing his voice. He forgets chords.

His voice isn’t gone, but there is a new dimension to it. It carries a deep sorrow, one that, with the help of longtime bandmate and writing partner Warren Ellis, Cave has been able to mould into an eight track record filled with laments.

Jesus Alone starts proceedings with electronic effects pulsating like a heartbeat over  ominous strings and Cave’s keys, throwing us headfirst into his new approach to songwriting. He no longer believes life is a story he can tell with a true narrative. He views reality as fractured and thinks that should be reflected. If there is any logic to be found in it, it is a distressing one, he admits in One More Time With Feeling.

There is tragedy at the heart of Girl In Amber - on which Cave sings: “If you want to bleed, just bleed, if you want to bleed, don’t breathe a word, just step away.” - anguish on Magneto and desperation on I Need You. The haunting Distant Sky gains an uplifting air from vocals by Danish soprano Else Torp, a well placed counter-balance to Cave’s gravelly tones, but can’t quite escape a sense of defeated hope.

Ellis’s contributions must not be overlooked, as once again the pair’s symbiotic musical relationship continues to thrive. Ellis has created ambient soundscapes that perfectly frame Cave’s catharsis, whether that’s by employing atonal violins, synthesisers or the turn of a knob on an effects pedal.

Dissecting an album like this is a nebulous task. How can you seek to rationalise something created by a man who admits he cannot get a handle on it himself? The only approach is to bear witness to Cave’s journey and let it envelop you completely.


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