27 Sep 2016

Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 27 September 2016
Nick Cave

Nick Cave Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger listens to the new album by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and wonders if thew music can be separated from the tragic circumstances surrounding its creation.

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It’s almost impossible to hear this album without being reminded of the circumstances of its creation.

Just over a year ago, while Nick Cave was working on the songs that would become this album, his 15-year-old son Arthur, one of twins, died in a fall from a cliff near the Caves’ home in Brighton. Bearing that in mind, the songs seem almost unbearably freighted with personal loss and grief.

From the first words of the first track, ‘Jesus Alone’ - ‘you fell from the sky’ – to the image of the young man covered in blood, the connection between the singer and what we know of the tragedy is unavoidable.

But is that being presumptuous? As it turns out, most of these songs, including that one, had already been written before the awful accident. And the song’s images, while eerily prescient, are in another sense, just typical Nick Cave. His writing has always had the air of myth of fable, whether alluding to the myth of Icarus or drawing on his own imagination. He has always been attracted to the big dark themes, and has been inclined to mix and match them: God and Satan, sex and death. And in one sense these latest songs are no exception.

If the music is particularly solemn, it is just the latest development of a sonic direction the Bad Seeds were already taking with their last album, 2013’s Push The Sky Away. That was the first record they had made since the departure of multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, Cave’s musical lieutenant for the previous three decades. Stepping in to fill this role was Warren Ellis, another player of many parts, though with quite different skills from Harvey. And you can sense his hand in the layering of loops and the unidentifiable stringed things that create the eerie atmospheres of these tracks.

Sonically they hover in a zone somewhere between solo Brian Eno and a David Lynch soundtrack. And these impressionistic settings provide a sympathetic bed for Cave’s vocal performances, which are the thing that has perhaps changed most dramatically.

Over the years, he has fashioned a voice suited to his persona: part Jim Morrison, part Vegas crooner. It’s a voice suited to songs that could revel in obscenity one moment, summon the ancient muses the next, and there are still places where he exercises that voice here. But there are also moments where that voice seems to crumble, and that is the real shocker.

In ‘Girl In Amber’ the image of the fossil, of the phone that no longer rings, or the song repeating endlessly like a record that’s been left on a turntable for decades, all evoke that hollow sense of time suspended when something is taken away. But it’s the broken sound of Cave’s voice that ultimately makes this such a haunting piece. And while his lyrics are still crafted with a poet’s precision, there is a sense in which the characters Cave used to inhabit, or maybe hide behind, have begun to collapse. Where his songs in the past were peppered with literary jokes, seemingly placed for his own amusement, there is no humour here. And the literary allusions have, in a song like ‘I Need You’, been replaced by a language that is far more personal and vulnerable.

Perhaps the real test will be hearing Skeleton Tree again somewhere further down the line, when its universal themes can be more easily separated from its very particular grief. In the meantime, I hear this as a sometimes stumbling, but often bravely revealing record, perhaps even a therapeutic one, made by an artist who in the circumstances might be doing the only thing he can.

Songs featured: Jesus Alone, Rings Of Saturn, Megneto, Girl In Amber, I Need You.

Skeleton Tree is available on Bad Seed Records.

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