Have you ever lost someone you loved? If not, listening to Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds may give you a taste of the pain.
Released in 2016, Skeleton Tree is the most vulnerable and intimate album of the Cave & Bad Seeds discography. The album focuses on Cave mourning the death of his son, Arthur, who died in early 2016. Strangely, many of the songs that appear on the album were recorded prior to the death of his son. For old Bad Seeds fans, the album is a departure from the earlier Bad Seeds records but a continuation of the soundscapes on their previous album, Push The Sky Away. This new incarnation of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds relies more on synths than anything else.
Initially, the album begins with a darkly, but laid-back tone. “Rings of Saturn” has Cave rambling off cryptic lyrics over a chill, lo-fi drone. Originally starting out as just a freestyle that Cave did after hearing the track’s instrumental, it’s no wonder I still have no idea what he’s talking about. Is it about a girl inside a spider web watching over the cities and acting as a mother figure fulfilling her duties with her watchful eye? Maybe it’s just about intimate sex with a pretty girl? Yeah, probably. A few moments into the track, there’s a backing vocal going: “oh-o-woah-o-oh-o” alongside Cave. It looks and sounds dumb as I write it here, but trust me, it really enhances the track. My favorite lines are: “And spurting ink over the sheets but she remains, completely unexplained / Or maybe I’m just too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain.”
The track “Girl in Amber” plays right after “Rings of Saturn” and it’s when the true tone of the album shows. A gloomy piano plays over a synth soundscape, with occasional female backing vocals going “ahh-ah-ahh,” amplifying the despair in Cave’s voice. He doesn’t sound as broken here as he does on a later track, but it’s a taste of what’s to come. My favorite part is when the female vocals come in. The tone of the track is very silent and close, but when the vocals arrive, it’s a wave of sound and sadness that gives me goosebumps. My favorite line of the track is: “And if you want to bleed, just bleed.” Cave sounds careless, but evokes a sense of unwillingness to let go.
The album reaches its climax with the track “I Need You,” where, as cliché as it sounds, Cave puts his whole heart and soul into the track. He sounds like a broken old man on the brink of tears making a last-ditch effort to save his son. All the tracks up to this point have been building up to this, and it delivers. If you only had one song to choose off this album, this would probably be it. My favorite line: “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone.”
Nearing the end of the album, the track “Distant Sky” acts as a final farewell to his son, and is one of my favorite tracks due to Else Torp’s vocals. She makes this track better than it should be. Her vocals are operatic and sustained, but also have a soothing quality that’s akin to an angel doing ASMR at a funeral vigil. Like “Girl in Amber,” listening to this track gives me goosebumps.
All in all, a very depressing album! If you’re having a good day, this album will surely kill your mood. It clocks in at only 39 minutes, which can be relatively short for albums nowadays, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in substance. Every song on this album is either good or great. There are no duds, low points, or stinkers on this album. It’s intriguing and gripping all the way through. Now, yeah, it’s true there are only 8 tracks on this album which is not hard to f*ck up, but still… it’s a fine ass album.
Also, keep an eye out for the newest Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Ghosteen, which was released very recently. I’ve listened to it a little – it seems to build off of Skeleton Tree. Expect a review from me very soon.