In One More Time With Feeling, a film about both his new album and the death his teenage son Arthur in 2015, Nick Cave gently counsels against linking the contents the former too closely with the latter. He points out that most the lyrics were written prior to his son’s death, that he was too stricken to write anything worthwhile in the aftermath. Nor should anyone set too much store by the bizarre, apparently premonitory, coincidences in the lyrics: the album’s opening line about a body falling from the sky; the recurring theme addressing God to no avail – which even disconcerted his main musical foil, Warren Ellis.
It’s not hard to understand why Cave is so firm on this. The last thing anyone needs is to have a shattering personal tragedy transmogrified into some kind spooky rock myth. But the initial response to Skeleton Tree suggested Cave might as well have saved his breath. The album was immediately hailed as an unflinching exploration grief. For good measure, several reviews threw in the suggestion that the album’s opening line was an explicit reference to both the manner and location his son’s passing.
Then again, you can see why people have felt unable to unpick the songs on Skeleton Tree’s from the events surrounding it, and not just because One More Time With Feeling occasionally seems to marry them. If you’ve seen it, it’s hard to disassociate the sound Distant Sky from the film’s harrowing conclusion. And there are lines in Magneto – “The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming / I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues” – that would seem like a classic latterday Cave joke, setting the fantastic violence his early work against the mundanity everyday life, had you not heard Cave describe being approached while shopping by a well-wisher and wondering when he became “a figure pity”.
It’s worth pointing out that, for the most part, the lyrics deal with the topics Nick Cave lyrics usually tend to deal with. “The song it spins now since 1984,” as Girl in Amber puts it, presumably in reference to the year Cave released his first album with The Bad Seeds. Jesus Alone conjures up the kind apocalyptic scenario you can find all over his back catalogue, from Tupelo to Straight to You to 2013’s Higgs Boson Blues. On Rings Saturn, we find Cave, as we so ten have on recent albums, helpless with lust, making wisecracks about it – “I thought that slavery had been abolished / How come it’s gone and reared its ugly head again?” – and finding the lady in question coolly unimpressed by his efforts to transform his feelings into writing: “I’m spurting ink all over the sheets, but she remains, completely unexplained.” There is a great deal calling out to some higher power and hearing nothing back, but then, there always was: We Call Upon the Author, Oh My Lord, God Is in the House.
But if the themes that run through Skeleton Tree seem like Cave’s standard preoccupations, the music has a tendency to cast them in a stark new light. The album’s closest sonic relation in Cave’s back catalogue is its predecessor, Push the Sky Away, similarly built around Warren Ellis’s electronic loops, which replaced the usual heft the Bad Seeds’ sound with an eerie haze: one the most muscular-sounding backing bands in the business suddenly took on a weightless, ethereal quality. Something similar happens here, only more so. The drums don’t hold down the music, they sound like they’re scattered over its surface. The other instruments feel like they’re loosely gathered together. Barely in time with each other, they’re frequently drowned out by grinding noise. The vocal harmonies are ragged, while the sung-spoken lyrics unexpectedly cram in extra syllables or words, so they jar with the musical backing, jolting out time with the rhythm the song.
The fog occasionally lifts and the music pulls sharply into melodic focus, to startling effect – on the title track, or Girl in Amber, where the backing vocals suddenly illuminate the chorus. But more ten, it doesn’t. For all its stately progress, Anthrocine sounds as chaotic as anything the Birthday Party ever put to tape: a rhythm track that bears no relation to anything else in the song fades in and out; a listlessly strummed acoustic guitar appears out nowhere, then vanishes; the backing vocals moan, the music keeps lapsing into momentary silence, or wails feedback. And like the Birthday Party, much Skeleton Tree feels like music that’s on the verge collapse. The big difference is that the Birthday Party sounded like a band who were tearing each other apart in a sodden frenzy: on Skeleton Tree, the Bad Seeds sound shattered, barely capable holding themselves together.
There is also the matter Cave’s voice. When he’s reciting the lyrics rather that singing them, he sounds dead-eyed and numb – the opposite the propulsive voice that snarled the spoken word sections The Mercy Seat or Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! And when he sings, what comes out sounds strained and parched, drained its usual power, but with a different, rather more difficult kind potency in its place. It’s most striking on I Need You, the song that boasts Skeleton Tree’s most beautiful tune. His voice transforms a lyric that, on another Nick Cave album, would be one more its author’s paeans to elusive women, into something else entirely: a desperate plea to someone not to lose themselves in fathomless misery.
The same voice sings the final lines an album that is no less brilliant, but perhaps less straightforward, than initial reactions suggested: not so much an exploration grief as an example how grief overwhelms or seeps into everything – a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless. “It’s all right now,” Cave sings, over and over again, on Skeleton Tree, but it doesn’t feel terribly reassuring. Like the album it shares its name with, it’s more complicated than it first appears.