Album Analysis | Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
The hugely influential Australian rock band’s 2016 album is a stark, impressionistic sonic portrait of pain, mirrored by personal tragedy in the life of legendary singer-songwriter Nick Cave.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album Skeleton Tree starts as it means to go on - with distorted, broken synth sounds and a high, piercing tone that sounds almost like a human wail. It is oppressive, barely melodic, and unsettling, as are Cave’s mumbling, rambling vocals and classically gothic lyrics – he narrates a series of abstract and often disturbing declarations such as “you’re a young man waking covered in blood that is not yours” and “you’re an African doctor harvesting tear ducts”. The identity of “you” is ambiguous, although the track is titled “Jesus Alone”. Perhaps this list of strange and seemingly disparate lives is referring to reincarnation, parallel universes, or perhaps simply imagined futures? Cave himself referred to the ambiguity of the lyrics in One More Time With Feeling, director Andrew Dominik’s documentary about the end stages of recording Skeleton Tree: “In my opinion I don't let a line go that I'm not really, really, pleased with basically. And this record, I have to let go of that, because the line is successful for another reason.”
This opening track, and most of the album, is somewhat reminiscent of the band’s previous offering, 2013’s magnificent Push the Sky Away, especially one of that album’s high points, “Higgs Boson Blues”, a series of surreal snapshots that namecheck Hannah Montana, Robert Johnson, and the devil himself. Skeleton Tree follows this tone of abstraction, of dreamlike imagery rather than narrative cohesion, of instinct and emotion over coherence.
Despite the slightly more avant-garde arrangements here, the band still gives the listener musical and lyrical motifs to hold onto among the confusion: “with my voice I am calling you” is repeated over warm piano chords between the opening track’s colder, more alienating verses. The next track, “Rings of Saturn”, offers a little more accessibility, its warm, bright synth pads playing a light, pretty chord sequence much more “pleasant” than its predecessor. In contrast to the relative sense of tranquillity here, the lyrics remain bizarre and rambling, finding Cave “upside-down and inside-out”, drifting seemingly without purpose through a series of images full of connotations, from the sexual “spurting ink over the sheets” to the cosmic “(she) reaches high and dangles herself like a child’s dream from the rings of Saturn."
The songs on Skeleton Tree are both quintessentially Nick Cave, whilst different from anything previously released. The themes – death, romance, religion and spirituality – have been largely the same since The Bad Seeds burst onto the scene with the noisy post-punk of 1984’s debut From Her to Eternity, even dating back to Cave’s debut in the late ‘70s with the chaotic gothic punk band The Birthday Party. As the decades passed and line-ups changed, the Bad Seeds moved gradually away from their dark and direct post-punk sound to embrace mournful piano ballads on albums like The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part, as well as Cave and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis broadening their musical horizons on a number of original film soundtracks in more recent years.
Despite these changes, no Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album has ever seemed like a drastic departure, due to the gradual and organic evolution of the band’s style. Skeleton Tree is perhaps the closest the band has come to delivering something truly unexpected, perhaps due to the circumstances in which it was made. It would be difficult to talk about this album without mentioning the tragedy that occurred partway through its writing and recording.
In July 2015, Cave’s son Arthur died at the age of fifteen after falling from a cliff near Brighton, England. It is hard, and perhaps insensitive, to attempt to decipher which of the lyrics on the album are in reference to this, and to what extent the bleakness of its sound was informed by this. It has been stated by the band that the majority of the album, including most of its vocal tracks, was recorded before this event, although a small number of lyrics were written and recorded afterwards, as well as a number of instrumental tracks.
In One More Time With Feeling, Cave states that he did not write about his son’s death directly, as “every time I try and articulate it it does him a disservice, that's how it feels”. However, he also claims that the trauma, although overall “extremely damaging to the creative process”, allowed him to “let go” of his previously-established, methodical, perfectionist style of writing. “The way that [the songs have] been presented, the way that you hear them on this record, is very much because of the emotional state not just of myself but of everybody in the studio when we were doing that. The state we were in gave us the confidence just to allow this thing to go out like it was… there's something about the naked nature of the songs that have Arthur all through them.”
On piano ballad “Girl in Amber” Cave sounds utterly drained, his voice trembling like never before. There are more astronomical references, where the turning of the Earth is compared to the spinning of a record. Cave’s powerlessness and conscious inaction floats somewhere between defeat and acceptance - he can’t change the world or the past, and this is reflected on the motif “if you want to bleed, just bleed”. The track touches on a tectonic shift in perspective: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber ‘til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / I don’t think that any more” This is a fine example of the album’s deliberate crypticism - is it the crumbling he no longer believes in or the wandering?
The sullen “Magneto” seems to reflect on Cave’s past heroin addiction and withdrawal with some of the most strikingly disturbing yet effective imagery on the album: “you come shining, softly to the hole to drink / come as far as the edge of my blood and then swim / And in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink / And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns”. Other lines such as “the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming / I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues” are ambiguous- is he referring to his old withdrawals, or his more recent grieving process?
“Magneto” also displays the album as a fantastic exercise in sound and texture: strange buzzing sounds in the background reflect the lyrics “I was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor, clutching the bowl / My blood was full of gags and other people’s diseases”, and weird, slightly off-kilter strums of guitar add to the mournful, lost tone and sense of dislocation. On “Anthrocene”, hissing rides and tinny snare drum hits form an oppressive texture that perfectly audially represents “the dark force that shifts at the edge of the tree”.
It is at this point, five tracks in, that the album’s relentlessly downbeat and uncomfortable mood starts to become a challenge - although that is arguably the point, and merely a reflection of the album’s heavy themes. Perhaps Skeleton Tree’s defining statement among its bizarre imagery is the simple, stark line: “the things we love, we love, we love, we lose”. Cave’s music has always been gothic and grandiose - on decades-old classics such as “The Mercy Seat” the darkness was theatrical, a spectacle. On Skeleton Tree, it is presented without flamboyance or excess - just down-to-earth despair. On “I Need You”, Cave sounds as if he is actually physically struggling to sing, over funereal synth chords. The album’s second reference to supermarkets here is notable: the continued existence of mundane trips to buy groceries in the midst of so much misery is a striking observation.
“Distant Sky”, although again emotionally heavy, is a welcome relief - its sadness is more peaceful than angst-ridden. It is the album’s, and perhaps Cave’s, most traditionally beautiful hymn. Here he shares the mic with Danish soprano Else Torp, whose classically beautiful voice sounds as angelic as the heavenly strings that adorn the track. Torp reassures the narrator that it is time to move on, time for some form of catharsis: “Let us go now, my darling companion / Set us for the distant skies”. It also features one of Cave’s most heart-rending lyrics: “they told us our gods would outlive us / but they lied”.
Closer “Skeleton Tree” continues in a similar vein, with Cave mournfully intoning “I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / And nothing is for free”. Despite the tragedy of the lyrics, the title track’s languidly-strummed guitar, warm piano, and neatly-resolved chords, sounds like acceptance - like the first faint glimpses of a sunrise after a long, dark night. This track seems to represent the completion of the album’s journey of grief – at least as much as grief is ever “complete”.
Skeleton Tree, even for those partial to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ brand of angst, is by no means an easy listen, and is often difficult to even describe as enjoyable. The fragmented vocals, the quasi-ambient electronic drones, and the relentless darkness paint the concepts of grief, desolation and isolation in such an expert fashion that it is easy to hear it once and never return to it. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding its release, it feels like an exorcism for Cave, a purging of the darkest elements of the psyche, a painful yet necessary process.
Finally, in the last verse of the album, Cave’s words reach this acceptance that the music has: "It’s alright now."