There are too many lives taken too early in many walks of life but, with the possible exception of the armed services, none more so than in Rock 'n Roll. Early, often tragic, unfortunate, untimely and ultimately futile death has seemingly been a staple of the profession from its earliest incarnation. It's almost an expected given from time-to-time. Line-ups change because of it, the artists in question often take on another type of, celebrated/lauded/deity status and record companies release endless re mastered collections so that we can fully appreciate 'our' loss.
The tragedy of the unexpected early death of one's son or daughter to an artist is a far rarer thing and as such is more of an unknown. Nick Cave has always been, in my eyes at least, such a strong, powerful, confident and authoritative person. Yes he's capable of creating beauty, baring his soul, capturing love and longing and expressing it brilliantly but always with a certain swagger, an inner belief and a natural charisma. The death of his fifteen year old son, Arthur, has so obviously changed that in so many ways on his, and the Bad Seeds, latest release, 'Skeleton Tree'.
Although 'Skeleton Tree; was started prior to Arthur's passing it is clear in every aspect of the record that each song is somehow channelling Nick's grief. From the opening bars of the vibraphone on 'Jesus Alone' and through very last mournful word that Nick utters the darkness of death is not far away. His sorrow, frustration, confusion and anguish are audible throughout; if not literally in lyrical form, then in his often stark rendering of the songs in his performance. Nick has always been capable of swerving between the tender and the tormented but on 'Skeleton Tree' he sounds older, his vocal is not so polished and at times he sounds fragile. There is a brittle seam that runs through his new record that ultimately captures its emotional sensitivity and its portrayal of such a sad loss. Nick has himself questioned whether his voice is strong enough, and it's not as strong as it is on any of his previous 15 studio albums, but it is no less effective, emotive, soulful or engaging. His ability to lift, suspend or arrest your sensibilities is undiminished as he works through a series of songs that, by his own admission, have a rawness that is more stark and unfinished than most of his previous back catalogue.
'Skeleton Tree' is largely, but not wholly, devoid of traditional harmony, melody or beat. There is little in the way of a chorus to be found and there is a uneasy, quite deliberate, lack of rhythm in many of the songs and on the album as a whole. The arrangements are barely structured, loosely held together (aptly) on the edge of collapsing under their own pressure. There is less singing and more narrative, spoken word commentary and an overall, painful, sense throughout that although the release of these songs may have helped a little with the grieving process that actually it's barely scratched the surface.
Nick has never shied away from confronting issues, topics or views that are not easily captured or expressed and here is certainly no exception. If anything his lyrics are more open, more honest and more devastatingly caught than ever before. There are references to Arthur throughout, each one as moving as the other. On the album's title track Nick sings "I called out right across the sea, but the echo comes back empty and nothing is for free". Paired with the soft shuffle of Thomas Wydler's snare and Nick's haunting piano you can't help but be moved. There has been no attempt to avoid, disguise or alter any aspect of these emotionally charged songs. As Nick says during the opening to the tragically beautiful 'I Need You'..."nothing really matters anymore, ....nothing really matters when the one you love is gone".
'Skeleton Tree' is undoubtedly Nick sharing his grief but it also a band in unison: a collective working together in sympathy and with clear empathy; a combined effort, however difficult, to move forward ever so gradually. The album has captured a moment in time but will not be bound by it, it will be as poignant a tribute in 10 years time as it is now and its raw, laid bare out-pouring will always resonate, connect and affect. "The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming" Nick imparts on 'Magneto' and that impassioned grief pervades much of 'Skeleton Tree'. His reality has so obviously, and catastrophically changed that everything is re-evaluated. "They told us our gods would out live us, they told us our dreams would out live us, but they lied".
Nick Cave has always been an eloquent lyricist, passionate performer, prolific and challenging artist. He has often dealt with death in his songs, questioned the absurdity of much of life's idiosyncrasies, often written about god, creation and belief but it has taken a single tragic event for him to question his own role, his own part and to once again try and make sense, if sense can be made, out of it all.
This latest record has little to do with where it fits chronologically for him or the band, has little to do with its style or progression from the last release and has everything to do with the tragic event that happened in July last year. 'Skeleton Tree' is an achingly beautiful album that is so emotively laden with so much love, such desperate despair, an unrelenting truth and sad tragedy, but above all it is a brilliant piece of work.
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