A couple of days before the start of Freshers Week saw the hotly-anticipated release of the Bad Seeds’ 16th album – Skeleton Tree. It comes after a great personal tragedy for frontman Nick Cave, whose son – Arthur, 15 – died late last year, falling to his death under the influence of LSD. It has, arguably, put the album under an elevated level of scrutiny as listeners attempt to pick apart Cave’s anguished lyrical imagery of death and the supernatural in search of eerie references to his son’s untimely demise.
It is telling of the contemporary artistic landscape that so many hope to find Cave openly confessing his darkest grief to the public – that there is an expectation of the artist to bare all and leave themselves no privacy in which to mourn. Not that these listeners will find much to go on. Cave has, quite firmly, asserted that most of the lyrics were written before his son’s death. Of course, the album is laden with oblique metaphors, esoteric symbolism and lyrical torment… but which of his records isn’t? There is much to be read into this album, and much of Cave’s grief for his son is apparent in the raw, rough finish to the songs. His grief is a brutal performance that is made clear through the despondent delivery of every single line, but Cave does not lyrically delve into the gory detail of the death of his son and nor should he.
There is an expectation of the artist to bare all and leave themselves no privacy in which to mourn
Musically, the album is very similar to its 2013 predecessor Push the Sky Away – minimalistic and spaced out. That said, Skeleton Tree maintains an uneasy tension throughout that differs from the previous release, each song commanding the listener’s attention.
From the very first track “Jesus Alone”, a song of menacing power as it sustains an industrial growling throughout, we are in Cave’s hands as he guides us through the album. Occasionally, as with the endurably pretty “Girl in Amber”, we are brought up for air, given some brief respite from the resonating weight of the mournful atmosphere – even if Cave’s ruminations remain as black as ever. Not that we’re given much time to collect ourselves before the crackling, sluggish ambience of “Magneto” which then descends into the even more dissonant, furious sound of “Anthrocene”. At this point it feels as though we have reached the murkiest depths of the album – form seems to have disappeared, each element playing as though unrelated to the other, the song flows in and out of focus as waves.
By the time “I Need You” comes around, Cave’s voice is at its most strained, singing: “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone“. The beautiful ambience of the piece starkly contrasts a voice that sounds spent, as though on the cusp of falling apart. It’s a song that warns of the dangers of giving into complete misery and a standout on the album.
“Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”
The album closes on its title track “Skeleton Tree”. There is something lighter about this song, something easier to connect with as the listener. The ringing organs and notably brighter guitar work could even suggest some kind of catharsis after the musical bleeding of the previous seven songs. However, the final refrain: “it’s alright now”, has a tangibly ironic quality to it. Cave is notoriously cryptic in his song writing, only a fool would expect to succeed in decoding it. If I had to guess though, I would argue that there’s no cathartic coming to terms with the death of his son Cave sings about in his final lines, rather, he has finally accepted grief as a constant companion. In short, it’s a perfectly-balanced album, refusing to indulge a voyeur public whilst never pulling a punch.