Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

skeleton-tree

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

It would be too easy to expect more from Skeleton Tree than it actually contains. What with the accompanying documentary film, plus the added reporting of his recent personal difficulties, the sixteenth album Nick Cave has made along with The Bad Seeds inevitably appears cloaked in some very gothic drapery indeed. The accidental death, during the album’s recording, of his son Arthur casts a baleful shadow across much though not all of the eight tracks and if you are wondering why, with events such as that to contend with, that the album has kept what was quite probably its working title, then you probably don’t entirely get it about Nick Cave.

An at times bewildering and/or grimly overwhelming presence in the indie underground, his not entirely predictable range of personas can see Cave taking lyrical and vocal cues from Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker, with the occasional nod to Mark E. Smith and Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman. There’s humour too, as when his duet with Kylie Minogue found its way into the UK top 40, and the one time Melbourne native has been comfortably relocated to southern England for nearly two decades now. Exactly what has fuelled his harshly-toned noir epics isn’t really so obvious today. Now in his late-50s and with the chaotic early-’80s revelries of The Birthday Party a distant memory, we could be forgiven for wondering exactly what more Nick Cave has to say to us now, and from the outset of Skeleton Tree it is obvious that whatever the backstory, we are listening to different kinds of Nick Cave songs here. The trademark stridency of “Red Right Hand” or even “Mr Clarinet” is replaced with an altogether more measured and restrained vocal style, and the overall tone of Skeleton Tree is less abrasively didactic one than that of its fifteen predecessors. Since I began writing this review Skeleton Tree has entered the album charts at #2 in the UK and #1 in Ireland. Love or loathe him, it’s beyond question that Cave has a significant fanbase nowadays.

Religious imagery is often to be found featuring prominently in Cave’s work, and opening track “Jesus Alone” continues this tradition. Its musical backdrop of softly growling, occasionally keening synths succeeds in conjuring an air of barely suppressed menace, of a twilit desert landscape as Cave intones the vocal, less harshly although no less effectively than on previous albums: “You’re a young girl full of forbidden energy, flickering in the gloom / You’re a drug addict lying on your back, in a Tijuana hotel room”. His lyrical imagination has lost none of its power, but next track “Rings Of Saturn” seems to lack the nervy tensions that any Bad Seeds song requires, a sluggish sounding tune that doesn’t exactly maintain the pace set by the album’s opener and around here, I began to appreciate that, perhaps like some other listeners whose image of Cave is defined by his earlier work. I am expecting something from Skeleton Tree that maybe isn’t actually there, that being his trademark crashing piano chords and mordant, thickly-voiced cynicism. Listening on, and I get to hear what Skeleton Tree really is, an album that is in some way a repudiation of the darker, more melodramatic work that Cave is known for, and the current Bad Seeds line-up provides him with a reflective, mildly sombre backdrop for his words, such as the stream-of-consciousness vocal of “Rings Of Saturn”, while “Girl In Amber” is similarly paced except with a characteristically emotive, if more restrained than usual, sung (not spoken) vocal performance.

Listening to exactly what The Bad Seeds are about on this album raises more questions than usual. The music crackles and hisses in the background, skilfully composed perhaps by Warren Ellis and Jim Sclavunos, and it’s a swirling, occasionally virulent backdrop played with minimalism at its core. It does begin to ramble slightly though, and inevitably I found myself preparing for the sudden rush of guitars and percussion that any other performer would have added to an ambiently produced record such as this, if only to get some form of reaction from the audience but that moment is missing from Skeleton Tree although as tracks “Magneto” and particularly “Anthrocene” reveal, The Bad Seeds have more than got it in them had they chosen to revisit the garage-punk pyrotechnics of the Grinderman band’s better moments, or those of The Birthday Party.

Listen closely though, and Nick Cave hasn’t really changed so very much. “The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming,” he sings on “Magneto”, as if he still hasn’t quite finished reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment or visualising himself as the anti-hero Raskolnikov, at least during that song. “I Need You” is an entirely different proposition, a love song whose lyric isn’t open to varied interpretation. “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone,” sings a genuinely emotional sounding Cave, and it’s a moment that Skeleton Tree requires, the sound of a musician struggling with his personal difficulties and the demands of his audience, something that Cave handles with probably all the experience that he has.

Danish opera singer Else Torp duets with Cave on “Distant Sky”, and it’s an undeniably emotive performance from everyone involved, elegiac and mysterious in equal measure. “Soon the children will be rising / This is not for our eyes,” sings Torp, while Cave paraphrases W H Auden. Lastly, the album’s closing title-track seems like the song that Cave actually wants to write, free of the constraints of familial tragedy and the weight of his own reputation. “I call out, I call out right across the sea,” runs the lyric and it’s here there is a sense of his own dislocation, an Australian raised on cowboy mythology living in southern England, the contradictions that make Nick Cave who he actually is all on show in a performance that’s simultaneously laid back and confrontational. It’s an eloquent finish to an album that Cave may fear we’ll remember for reasons other than its music.

Bad Seed Ltd