by Jessica Gentile
How do you work through unconceivable and inconsolable trauma? That is the question at the heart of Skeleton Tree, the first new music from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in the wake of his teenage son Arthur's accidental death falling off a cliff near the family's home in Brighton, England. As an artist whose music has consistently trafficked in death for over forty years, whether as metaphor or murder ballad, this is the first time he faces it head on. And while his son's specter looms over the record's eight tracks, Skeleton Tree is a much larger meditation on loss, grief, and the emptiness of life that ensues in the shadow of death.
As a public statement on a painfully private event, Skeleton Tree is most notable for what it lacks — closure. Pop music so often packages grief in a tidy way, urging us to take solace in the great beyond and other pseudo-spiritual clichés. We get Wiz Khalifa steadfast in his belief that he'll see Paul Walker again, cruising through a fast and furious afterlife. Or Puff Daddy, who knows Biggie is smiling down from heaven with every breath he takes. The closest analog to Cave's case, Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," also about his young son's death, is a deeply false one. Because on Skeleton Tree there is no heaven. There are no empty platitudes, no godly logic, no heavenly reunions, inherent to the fate befallen him. There is only the rawness of now. As the album attests, the most culturally acceptable (and consumable) form of mourning is not the only valid form. And that's why Skeleton Tree is so necessary: It gives a space for nihilism to thrive in the cultural conversation about death.
On Skeleton Tree Nick Cave is not so much working through grief, but working around it. The loss of his son is so monolithic it can't be penetrated, it is simply something that will always exist. Even as the days move further away from the tragic incident, he'll always be tethered to it. As he so thoughtfully explains in the companion documentary One More Time With Feeling, time is elastic, sometimes stretching further away, but always snapping back to the moment his son died. Life might go on, but it orbits an extraordinary void. As he sighs on the elegiac "I Need You," "Nothing really matters anymore."
Such is the intimacy of his grief that listening almost sounds like an intrusion of privacy, as he comes to such grim realizations. On opener "Jesus Alone" he attempts to conjure the dead. "With my voice I am calling you," he sings. As noted two songs later on "Girl In Amber," "the phone, it rings, it rings and you won't stay." His call, of course, goes unanswered. Yet while it's hard to listen, it's even harder not to, as if turning the album off would deny the validity of the daily hollowness he faces.
His bleak worldview is matched by the music. Humming drones, haunting strings and scattershot piano plinks compose most of the orchestrations. Sonically it sounds like a darker off-shoot of his last album Push The Sky Away, which also veered into non-linear, stream of consciousness territory, albeit with heightened dynamism. Of course, there's no way the highs of "Jubilee Street" could exist in this newly cratered landscape. They must yield to the monotonous sparseness of "Magneto" where the "monstrous memories follow him home."
The closest Cave comes to closure is acknowledging and accepting that there will be none. On "Distant Sky" a piercing duet with baroque singer Else Torp, he sings, "They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied." It's not only an acknowledgement of the magnitude and futureless of losing a child, but also sly commentary on how pop culture betrays and ignores humanist tendencies in times of mourning. The album's closer and title track ends with three simple words: "it's alright now." Though the cracks and creaks in his voice attest otherwise. It may never be alright, but sometimes just knowing things will never be same is enough to dull the pain of the present. And perhaps that's Skeleton Tree's greatest revelation of all.