Today the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Ghosteen, is reviewed on this page. It is an album whose emotional landscape and musical explorations can best be understood by knowing not just his personal history but the context in which this music appears.
Vital in that is the 2016 album Skeleton Tree.
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS
Skeleton Tree (Kobalt)
Searching for one, wrapping-it-all-up, telling-us-exactly-how-he-feels meaning in this album, the first released by Nick Cave since the death of his son last year, is an understandable, albeit reflexive, response.
This is an album that in the end connects more deeply than just about anything he’s written and as it marks us, we will seek to name that mark. And we will jump on a line such as “You turn, you turn, you kneel, lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy/Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall/I get lucky I get lucky cause I tried again.”
At the very least we don’t know how we would react to such a traumatic event, or maybe we do and wonder if our reaction was “normal” and shared. And then there’s our unquenchable thirst for “knowing” the mind/soul of an artist we like and drawing the personal from the general in lyrics.
After all, we tell ourselves we “know” Cave’s The Boatman’s Call was about the end of his relationship with PJ Harvey, even if he says otherwise or some songs show something else.
Also understandable is that deep down we do not really want to know the jagged, unformed, inexplicable and often enough inchoate truth.
Pain, like depression, frightens us, sending us into cliches of comfort or sending us away altogether so we can avoid the messiness and the consequent need to be comforted ourselves for our “distress” at being confronted by real emotion. “Are you ok?” can be a start, sure; it can also be an end, so there’s an unspoken thought of give us the pain in the songs but keep it manageable for us, ok?
In answer to one question then, no, Skeleton Tree never directly addresses Cave’s unimaginable loss. Not one song here can be neatly summarised as being “about” when your teenage son, your beautiful boy, is there one minute and not the next, and how you, your wife, his siblings and friends, have to go on another hour, another day, another year.
Some lines which speak of loss are directed at a female figure; some references to children are in contexts of life ongoing; some images of despair are open and general. Cave is not here for our ease of understanding.
However, in a way that still leaves itself open to interpretation of the finer points, Skeleton Tree is soaked, bone-deep, in powerful sadness.
Not sadness without light, nor sadness of a man saying there is no hope and I am alone; there is a kind of beauty here, tenderness too, rather than say, the kind of futility of any future you get in something like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon.
But sadness nonetheless, from which there’s no hiding as the restrained, sometimes almost ephemeral contribution of the Bad Seeds provides no easy cover of sound or fury to obscure the core of each song.
They play as quietly as he sings, even in the disturbing shavings of Jesus Alone with its industrial colouring and pricking tones, and Anthrocene with its more pressing, uncomfortable atmosphere, and he sings centimetres from you. Close enough to feel his breath. To hear his heartbeat. And even then you lean in.
There’s no escape in the space that goes on well beyond the horizon in Magneto, inside which a bass throbs like a machine in slow wakening and piano, tentatively, and guitar, pungently, make brief occasional appearances. Not any in the rising tide of synthesisers, with their echoes of the second side of Bowie’s Low, and the swelling male chorus of voices of I Need You.
Nor in the quiet movement of the title track that may remind you of parts of The Boatman’s Call, where the brushed snare-and-bass-drum rhythm matches the hypnotic sway of the melody.
And most certainly not in the elegant and undramatic farewell (with what may be a nod to Funeral Blues, Auden’s “stop all the clocks” poem) of Distant Sky where soprano Else Torp, sounding remarkably like Kate Bush singing Schubert, steps lightly just ahead of you with an invitation to “watch the sun, watch it rising, in your eyes”.
You can see why Cave did not want to conduct interviews about this album and not just because no one would want to explain 20, 50, 100 times just “how it feels”.
Make what you will from Jesus Alone when he sings “In a hole beneath the bridge you convalesced, you fashioned masks of twigs and clay/You cried beneath the dripping trees; you’re a ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid”.
Take what you can from Girl In Amber as he says “I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone/I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more.”
Skeleton Tree brings you in and lets you find a path of your choosing and it will let you live with, or move on from this album when it is the right moment to.
But you will be marked by it.