by Dan Manning (@mandanning)
Nick Cave did not need to make another album. Following the death of his 15-year old son, he was certainly not expected to continue to work. He could have taken years off to grieve, heal, be with his family, and no one would have thought less of him. And yet, he didn’t. Nick Cave, the workhorse that he is, trudged forward with the album he began working on before his son’s death, one that was suddenly hijacked by unimaginable tragedy. We must thank him for it, for the result is an unfiltered, cold portrait of grief and coping. This is not an album that revisits death and memory; one that was written years down the line about a lost loved one (see: Carrie and Lowell). Skeleton Tree, and accompanying film One More Time With Feeling, played an active role in the Cave family’s grieving process. We are hearing Nick Cave work his way through the overwhelming emotional weight of loss, while pouring every tear and fit of anger into a work of art that is being used as a vehicle to heal and overcome.
On a musical level, the album is dark even by Nick Cave standards, sparse and about as haunting as one would expect it to be. Starving acoustic guitar lines and floating pianos drift in and out of focus on top of haunting string and synth drones. At times it feels claustrophobic and dense, mirroring the mental stress of grief.
We see glimpses into the different stages of grief throughout the album, particularly on the track “Magneto,” in which Cave bluntly expresses that “the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming.” He is angry; angry at the world and at the people he sees who are able to continue on with their lives unaffected by something that has devoured his entire world. He wants them to feel the same pain that is consuming him. We see Cave stricken and depressed in “super market queues,” and longing to become “someone like you, who started out less with less than anyone I ever knew.” Here, he seems remorseful for the fortunate life he has led, suggesting that perhaps if he had less, there would be subsequent less room for loss.
On “Girl in Amber,” he revisits loving memories of his “blue-eyed boy,” delivering a line that is incredibly hard to stomach. He addresses the changes this loss has made to his worldview, saying that his world has stopped spinning “since you’ve been gone.” Loss also makes Cave rethink his views on death, as he delivers the existentially shaking line “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world in a slumber ‘til your crumble were absorbed into the earth. Well I don’t think that anymore…”
He tackles themes of the afterlife and religion frequently on Skeleton Tree, feeling more abandoned by the divine than empowered. In opening track “Jesus Alone,” he whips out the stinging line “you’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see.” As Cave works through his grief, he feels no warmth from religion, no support or salvation at the hands of an all-powerful force. However he acknowledges that same power later on in “Anthrocene,” suggesting, “there are powers at play more forceful than we.” Cave seems unable to stand firmly one way or the other about religion throughout the album; he refuses to run to it as a coping mechanism like so many others do in times of grief, yet he hints at the idea that our lives are not entirely in our control like we may hope.
As the album trudges along, the cracks in Cave’s façade grow wider and wider. He becomes more exposed, increasingly overwhelmed, sinking deeper and deeper into his grief. This is made apparent by his vocal delivery, which grows more and more strained as the album progresses. By the time we reach “I Need You,” the album’s emotional rock bottom, Cave is nearly sobbing into the microphone as he longs for his son to return to his side and exclaims “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.” “I Need You” is a punch to the gut, a knife in the heart, an absolutely devastating ballad in which Nick Cave tears off his masks and falls to his knees in front of the listener, breaking down and exposing the crushing ache in his soul. By the time the song reaches its end however, it seems as though Cave has turned his cries towards his wife, expressing to her this same longing, that he needs to be with her now more than ever.
As crushing as the first three quarters of Skeleton Tree may be, it is not all depression and grief. As soon as the final notes of “I Need You” ring out, a small glimpse of light appears as the warm, shining organs of “Distant Sky” hum into focus. If Nick Cave was begging for the help of his wife at the end of “I Need You”, she answers his call in “Distant Sky”. He is pulled out of the darkness by the beautiful voice of Els Torp, who urges Cave to continue onward, that a new day is dawning to wash away his grief. Cave pushes back initially, still struggling to let go with the line “they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.” Torp’s final retort reminds Cave that “the children will be rising,” that the morning has come and he must move forward for the sake of his remaining family. He has had his time to grieve, but he must now continue on with his life.
The final (and title) track affirms this acceptance as Cave repeats, “it’s alright now” backed by a choir of voices echoing his sentiments. It is a warm, comforting comedown, an appropriate closing remark on Cave’s emotional journey of loss. Skeleton Tree is a beautifully somber reminder that art can heal, and stands a testament not only to the overwhelming weight of losing a loved one, but also to the ability we have to overcome that loss and move forward. With Skeleton Tree, Cave takes us through every moment of his despair, forcing us to face it head on with him and accompany him on his journey. Nick Cave didn’t need to make this album, but I am incredibly thankful that he did.