Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

Editor's Review
  • - 9/10


Songs of apocalyptic heartbreak as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds prove they still have no fear of experimentation in the face of tragedy.

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In the three years since their last effort, 2013’s ‘Push The Sky Away’, much has occurred in the Bad Seeds camp. Facing unimaginable loss partway through recording, Cave’s lyric writing on ‘Skeleton Tree’ takes an understandably desolate turn over already dark arrangements. Accompanied by the limited screening of ‘One More Time With Feeling’, the album and film provide a poignant insight into coping with death, pain and grief.

From the very first bars of the opening number, ‘Jesus Alone’, the musical difference between ‘Skeleton Tree’ and the band’s last album is striking. The line up is largely unchanged from ‘Push The Sky Away’, and writing duties once again fall solely to Cave and multi-instrumental genius Warren Ellis. The arrangements are sparse and at times dissonant, with Nick Cave’s vocals often taking on an improvised, freeform feel. Despite the extensive list of personnel, conventional instruments seems almost completely done away with, the occasional throb of bass or simple beat overwhelmed by ambient loops and synths. However chaotic, though, it seldom feels disorganised, and the occasional docile chord from Cave’s grand piano keeps each song tethered.

‘Jesus Alone’ is certainly a wise choice as an introductory number. Foreboding and mysterious, it leaps straight into the group’s new sound without pause for breath, setting the scene for what’s to come. The lyrics are just as open-ended, as Cave calls to the “young girl full of forbidden energy”, the “old man sitting by a fire” and the “drug addict lying on your back in a Tijuana hotel room”. It’s a rallying cry to all to assemble and pay heed to what is to follow. Unfortunately, what follows immediately is somewhat stunted. ‘Rings Of Saturn’, for all its positive qualities, does not fit with the rest of the album and only serves to disrupt the flow. Of course, Nick Cave’s vocal delivery and lyrical gymnastics are as perfect as ever, but the light, airy backing, glistening keys and choruses of “woah-oah-ah-oh”s are almost far too rooted in the realms of dreamy pop to be taken as seriously.

However, it is perhaps this that leaves the listener completely unprepared for the biggest stylistic shift on the album. ‘Girl In Amber’ could not be further away from it’s predecessor on the emotional spectrum: cold, empty and utterly heart-wrenching. Piano takes a lead on this number, with very little accompaniment. For the first time in his career, Nick Cave sounds old, haggard, lost and alone. It is a song of farewell, a song of defeat, a song of exhaustion. What makes ‘Skeleton Tree’ so powerful has now made itself apparent, and it is this atmosphere that remains throughout the rest of the album. It continues throughout the minimal and tender ‘Magneto’ and through the unpolished, flurrying ‘Anthropocene’. In both, Cave’s performance is at it’s most poetic, remaining vague is his description yet open in his emotion.

‘I Need You’ kicks off the final trio of ‘Skeleton Tree’, which offer perhaps the finest moments on the entire album. Beginning lightly before the sudden arrival of a heavy, ominous melody, the song follows very much in the same vein as ‘Girl In Amber’. More obviously than the rest of the album, Nick Cave wears his heart firmly on his sleeve throughout. It feels like a cry for help in the face of incredible grief, a desire for someone to share the burden. This theme is continued into ‘Distant Skies’, where Cave duets with Danish soprano Else Torp. Saving some of his most striking imagery for last, it is here that Cave delivers his most devastating lyric:

“They told us our gods would outlive us
They told us our dreams would outlive us
They told us our gods would outlive us
But they lied.”

However, Torp’s pure tone brings some light to the darkness, as if Cave’s desires have been reciprocated and some hope may reveal itself. It is this resolution that is provided in the album’s self-titled number, it’s closing song and greatest track. Without a doubt the most conventional on the album, ‘Skeleton Key’ is a simple piano-led ballad over acoustic guitar, bass and drums, with next to no electronic flourishes added. It is certainly the most positive song to feature here, even fading out to a refrain insisting that “it’s alright now”. While the vagueness of the lyrics may hint at some irony in this statement, ‘Skeleton Tree’ as a whole feels like a journey through grief and acceptance: a sudden catastrophe, a period of chaos, a desperate appeal for the comfort of others and finally self-rediscovery and the possibility a positive future. It is a journey that Cave, and by extension his Bad Seed cohorts, have all had to face head on, and in so doing have produced one of their most emotionally devastating works.

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