Grief takes on many forms. There are many different actions associated with grief and just as many emotions and questions expressed through it that are all rooted in a single primal feeling. This is especially true for artists going through grief; some express their grief in a single statement, some let their grief haunt their career from that point forward, and some respond to their grief by completely ending their pursuits. This cyclone of actions is portrayed quite accurately on Skeleton Tree, the sixteenth studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Polished and recorded following the death of Cave’s teenage son, this album is on a completely different level when compared to the darkness that was peddled on their past efforts.
On first listen to the unprepared, this album is an absolute mess. Cave’s voice is powerful and at his low key best, but the stream-of-consciousness lyrical approach makes it next to impossible to get a grasp on the actual notes. The incorporation of ambient and electronica influences is effective and serves the mood well, but the timing feels somewhat off on “Rings of Saturn” and the programming on “Anthrocene” feels like it’ll come off its wheels any second. The music has its subtlety and artistic flair but also feels like it is barely keeping itself together.
But there does come the time when these fragmented experiences come together and the album’s sense of purpose is unveiled. Hearing the right lyric at the right moment makes the listener pause, allowing them to fully absorb the confessional onslaughts that make up tracks like “Girl in Amber” and “I Need You.” Even the dissonant moments fall into place when considering the implications of their existence as well as the cautious yet professional musicianship.
And while the songs themselves tend to revolve around a single idea or two that swells through each composition, there is most definitely a cycle of sorts at work. “Jesus Alone” starts the album off at its most subdued yet ominous point, inviting the listener to examine ground zero firsthand. From there, the emotions become more and more intense with each passing track until “Distant Sky” and the sweeping title track close things out with a different sort of restraint, one that offers tranquility and perhaps acceptance for what has transpired. Sure, the cycle of grief is a little cliché but damn it all if you don’t feel it every step of the way.
With that in mind, Skeleton Tree is an obvious milestone though one that is hard to place in the context of Nick Cave’s extensive discography. It’s not an accessible album in the traditional sense but anyone with the proper patience and attuned emotions should be able to understand it regardless of their musical preferences. It is not only a sure contender for the best of 2016 but also one of the most telling portrayals of grief that has ever been recorded.
“Girl In Amber”
“I Need You”