"All the things we love, we lose," Nick Cave sings on "Anthrocene," a dark and jazzy rumination on loss from Skeleton Tree, his captivating 16th album with backing band the Bad Seeds. The song as a whole is so understated and loose that the earnestness of his lyrics catch you by surprise. Here is the dean of literary gothic song-craft, a master of wordplay, symbolism and irony, baring his soul like never before.
Although Cave still writes safely from the perspective of characters on Skeleton Tree's eight songs, the grief on each track is undeniably and uniquely his own. Last summer, while Cave was writing the record, one of his twin sons, Arthur, age 15, fell off a cliff to his death in Brighton, England. In the film One More Time With Feeling, which chronicles the making of the LP, Cave describes the aftereffects of his death as "trauma" and while it's impossible to tell exactly what parts of the album were written after he suffered such unimaginable tragedy, there's a sadness that pervades each of the songs in a way that's never previously surfaced in Cave's music. The record resonates with raw, emotional intensity in a stunning way.
In the past, whether as the frontman for post-punk bruisers the Birthday Party in the early Eighties, the lead lothario in Grinderman in the Aughts or with his ever-fluctuating orchestral-rock crew Bad Seeds over decades, Cave has reveled in foreboding, abjection, doomed romance and cruel fate. In 1996, he recorded an album called Murder Ballads, which claimed 60-or-so fictional casualties, and on his last album, 2013's Push the Sky Away, he morbidly turned Miley Cyrus into a bizarre symbol of inexplicable yearning in an otherwise pale song of despair. But on Skeleton Tree, it's much harder to separate Cave's art from his reality.
Musically, the record is uniformly and unusually sparse, dwelling in deep, bassy tones. Its closest analogs in the Cave catalogue are the ghostlike tones of his 1986 meditation "Stranger Than Kindness," the all-encompassing sorrow of 2001's "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side" and the whole of his brilliant 1996 singer-songwriter outing The Boatman's Call, but without the latter's canny wit. It's a sharp contrast to the rootsiness and gospel inflections of Push the Sky Away and his previous Bad Seeds LP Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
He whispers in places where he used to shout, but his inflection says everything. "With my voice, I am calling you," he howls on Skeleton Tree's morose and eerie lead track "Jesus Alone" (sometime after the introductory lyric, "You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field") and because his voice rises above the soft piano, symphonic swells and jazzy drums, the heaviness of his words hit hard. When singing about a "Girl in Amber," as is the title of one shimmery Skeleton Tree track, his voice noticeably quivers: "I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber 'til you crumbled ... Well, I don't think that anymore." And on "Distant Sky," an ethereal song with an almost New Age-y arrangement and an angelic guest appearance by Danish soprano Else Torp, his heartbreak once more rings out above the serenity, "They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our Gods would outlive us but they lied."
Then there's "I Need You," a song propelled by a steady fuzzy synth line over which Cave sings an off-kilter melody that never quite syncs up to the music, but it's his observations that are significant: "Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone ... I need you." It's an ode to a woman in red, but the loss feels weightier than usual for Cave.
The most surprising thing about Skeleton Tree, though – more than Cave's newfound seriousness and modest arrangements – is how it ends with hope. The title track boasts not only the album's fullest musical arrangement – gentle swelling synthesizers, a gorgeous piano lead, scratchy acoustic guitars – but also its brightest lyrics: "I called out that nothing is for free/And it's all right now." He repeats that last line three times in a way that suggests he means it, or at least that he's trying to convince himself that he means it. If he didn't, it would be all too overwhelming.
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