Cross-pollination between the arts is nothing new. Yet 2016 has been the year when prolific artists explicitly experimented with form, with the likes of Beyoncé and Frank Ocean releasing new music alongside gripping visual albums and films (Lemonade and Endless, respectively). The Australian auteur and reigning prince of darkness, Nick Cave, also opted for a visual aspect accompanying the release of his 16th studio album with his band the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree. The album’s Friday release was coupled with a series of global screenings the night before, of a 3D black-and-white film, One More Time With Feeling.
The film is hardly a behind-the-scenes peek to satiate Cave die-hards still begging for a possible Birthday Party reunion. Nor is it a visual play-by-play of Skeleton Tree. Instead, it’s an act of survival. In 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died following a fall from a cliff in Brighton, United Kingdom. Cave and Susie Bick, his wife, lay their suffering bare in the visceral documentary, which catalogues their disbelief, ongoing attempts to cope, and Cave’s own ruminations of how it affected everyone and everything around him. All the while, Cave channeled his grief into new music that was macabre, even by his own standards. “Nick deals with everything in life by working; if his heart is broken he can turn it into a song, everything is a grist for the mill,” the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, told journalists at the 2016 Venice Film Festival.
The magnitude of this tragedy casts a long shadow over Skeleton Tree. How can it not? Up front (note the stark album cover, leaving little to the imagination), Cave makes it plain to listeners that he’s still mourning, and may be indefinitely. “With my voice, I am calling you,” he cries behind the drones of album opener “Jesus Alone” (a strangely prescient farewell, given that the song was written back in 2014). During the avant-garde jazz-laced “Anthrocene,” he shares something we all know, wish we didn’t, and is certainly worth repeating: “All the things we love, we lose.”
Cave is “an epic storyteller of Grimm proportions,” as NME’s Jack Barron put it in the ‘80s. Since his days in The Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party, and throughout his many years with the Bad Seeds, Cave has preferred to obliquely express himself through the perspectives of others, both real and imagined. On Skeleton Tree, he continues to channel his experiences through the lens of others. Cave takes his voice down to a pained growl on the funereal “Girl in Amber” as he memorializes a woman forever suspended in sap, and then imagines moving in tandem with a loved one, their lives moving forward in parallel lines, in the dreary and devastating “Magneto.”
But unlike previous tales—where strippers and tall, handsome men with dusty black coats and red right hands stood somber and alone—Cave’s emotions usurp those of the characters he muses about on Skeleton Tree; an inevitability, given this still-raw wound. “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone,” he admits on “Magneto.” In “Girl in Amber,” he shares a sad revelation of life and death: “I knew the world 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 til your crumbled were absolved into the Earth / Well I don’t think that any more.”
Gone, too, is the lush orchestration that propelled Cave’s last album, 2013’s Push the Sky Away, into the realm of the heavenly. Skeleton Tree strips down embellishments and brings to the forefront sinister bass lines and a synthesizer that will widen the tear in your heart a little more with every note, especially on the ephemeral “Distant Sky.” Here, Cave and the Danish soprano vocalist Else Torp, in a languid duet, say goodbye in something not unlike a eulogy: “Let us go now, my darling companion,” she sings. “Set out for the distant skies.” The barely-there drums by no means renders Skeleton Tree bare, though. Cave’s visceral lyrics are in even sharper focus, and the thud of his words hitting ears take on a new kind of percussion on their own.
Skeleton Tree is a wrenching reminder that grief is a shifty, many-tentacled being. It has the capability of coming on fast, then slow, then fast again at the most unsuspecting times. As Cave notes in “Magneto,” those shifts affect the emotional (“hard blues down there in the supermarket queues”) as well as the physical (“and in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink”).
It also makes the important point that grief isn’t something that can be easily eradicated, but rather, eventually, it can be wrangled down in a way that makes it possible to keep living. Everyone goes about this differently, and in the pursuit to keep on, some people turn inward. Others gravitate towards God. Cave has forever focused on the finer points of salvation and redemption in his music, but it’s clear that religion is neither a comfort, nor a small, good thing at a time like this. “You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now,” he confesses on “Jesus Alone.” “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?”
Skeleton Tree, by contrast, isn’t something listeners can likely dislodge from their minds anytime soon. Cave fans may nitpick about how this album instrumentally stands against avant-garde classics like Kicking Against the Pricks and Let Love In. But there’s something to be said about Skeleton Tree and its starkness, which is as familiar as life and death, an elegy, and a hell of a thing to forget.