Much has been made of the circumstances surrounding Nick Cave’s 16th studio album, coming after the tragic death of his son Arthur. But Skeleton Tree is not a requiem, it is at once an articulate, restrained choke of grief, a determined response and a defiant stance. It is also proof, if any were needed, that its creator is a driven man. Inaction, it seems, was not an option.
The choice of whether life’s upheavals result in art seems to be no longer Cave’s to make, he has to write, to create, to pull something tangible and expressive from himself. Perhaps his only choice lies in what form these results take. In the case of Skeleton Tree, it takes the form of the most harrowing album of recent times. This is not an easy album to take in, it is not something that one could listen to casually. It engages the listener, stirs their emotions and places them in the epicentre of a world of confused pain.
In a similar way to how people have been tempted to retrospectively view the lyrics of Joy Division’s Closer as a prolonged, Freudian suicide note, it is also easy to take the lyrics of Skeleton Tree as notes from a voluntary grief counselling session. In truth, most of the lyrics were written before what Cave refers to as ‘the trauma’, but have an eerie prescience about them. Indeed, the first lines on the album are “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field” and in Girl in Amber he tells us “I used to think that when you died, you kind of wandered the world, in a slumber ‘til you crumbled and were absorbed into the earth. Well, I don't think that any more, the phone it rings no more”
Cave also improvised some stream of consciousness lyrics during the recording and it is hard not to become involved with his pain as he sings “Just breathe, just breathe, I need you”. His vocals sound positively threadbare and suddenly aged, the lyrics half spoken, as if he has been up too late, neglecting to look after his own health in the eye of the storm. This gives the listener the feeling of eavesdropping into a person’s thoughts and gives the album a sense of real intimacy.
In many ways, Skeleton Tree is the perfect record for 2016, a decade that has been characterised by seemingly endless tragedy, by death and loss, both of friends and of heroes (the personal and impersonal). 2016 deserves a record like this as its soundtrack, an elegy for the year’s fallen.
As a replacement for the usual round of interviews and gigs normally used to promote an album, Cave released the self-financed One More Time With Feeling as the sole piece of promotional activity. As the film ends, Cave says “It’s alright. It’s not alright, but it’s alright’ as he tries to come to terms with tragedy and accept what has happened. In an echo of this, Skeleton Tree closes with him repeating the line “And it’s alright now”, showing a defiant spirit that may well be his salvation. In the film he goes on to say that “Susie and I have decided to be happy, as an act of defiance “and again it’s hard to keep the tears in.
It is difficult to imagine Cave wanting to take these songs on the road, to repeatedly place himself in the emotional storm he was in when he recorded them. Although some might argue he has paraded his emotions before, this would seem to be several steps too far.
To find art in the midst of despair is a rare gift indeed, but it is one that Cave manages with dignity and poise. Skeleton Tree is a simply stunning album.
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