Mourning Publicly Privately: Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’

“You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur,” Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree opens in the first track, “Jesus Alone,” a song in which Cave’s voice and a baritone electronic vibration deliver a ceaselessly tense duet. This seems the most barefaced statement addressing the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur (who fell off a seaside cliff in Brighton in 2015) on the album, delivering a missive about the emotional landscape that’s about to be entered. But, like the film about the making of the album, One More Time with Feeling, it also seems a way for the artist to get it off his chest to the public, and thereafter speak of it (or of other losses) indirectly, in devastating abstractions and contemplations (sometimes on songs that were written prior to the event — as much of the album was). The film was made so Cave wouldn’t have to do interviews about the album and discuss his mourning process with the press. Similarly, that first line also gets something out of the way so he doesn’t need to repeat it.

Reviews of the album that’ve already been released essentially boil down to a quintessential display of the inherent emotional parasitism of consuming (and writing about!) art, and particularly music (especially on odd display when the reviews are quantified via a points system): “Nick Cave mourns so exquisitely here. The devastation brings an unforgettable rawness to his voice.” I can’t say this piece will be entirely different.

In the film, Cave addressed the uncomfortable relationship between trauma and artistry — and understandable if troublesome audience mythologizing of the traumas of the artist. “We all hope for something dramatic in our life that we can write about. But this trauma, it was very damaging to the creative process,” Cave said in the film, through which he struggles to put together the album he began before the death, an album whose every note now seems, particularly along critical narratives, exquisitely stripped and discolored by it. Indeed, the album is less robust than some of his others. It’s humorless. It’s more ragged.

And yes, it’s eviscerating and almost unspeakably powerful.

I can’t help but note that it feels problematic to record my take: I think this is a superlative album in a prolific career absurdly saturated with excellence. Similarly, I can’t help but note the strange resonance of Cave’s booming, authoritatively erudite voice when it wavers and fights not to disappear over backup singers’ gentle moans on “I Need You.” Some of the most powerful lyrics on the album (which come in that song) are its most straightforward about loss. Cave can weave the most elaborate and vivid images of characters — like “Miley Cyrus float[ing] in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake” or an amorous/murderous Scottish girl who kills her unrequited crush with a penknife. But when he says something, emphatically and repeatedly, as simple and messy as “You’re still in me, baby/I need you/In my heart, I need you,” that guts me the most and honestly, gives me the most fulfillment in being gutted. Between this, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Bowie’s Blackstar, and Björk’s Vulnicura, some of the best — and best received — albums of the last few years have led listeners on a safari through strangers’ personal stages of grief and mourning, replete with all of the ethical questions about voyeurism and transcendences it entails — as well as their share of rapturous moments where you want to scream, “humanity!” and/or simply, “world!”

Björk and Sufjan Stevens took almost diaristic approaches to their heartbreaks — documenting intimate moments no one else would’ve ever known. Stevens recorded his album about the death of his mother in his room, over the hum of an air conditioner. Björk demarcated the songs on her album — about the death of her notion of family following her breakup with longtime partner Matthew Barney — with the amount of time before and after the ultimate moment of rupture that they were composed. Beyoncé’s album was more impressionistic — made with epic sweep and staged (yet effective) intimacy. Bowie turned himself into arcane symbols and cryptic revisitations of former selves to — unbeknownst to most at the time of release — confront his own death.

Cave’s approach exists somewhere in a grey, misty in-between of all 0f these points: after that first personal line in the opening track, almost nothing in the album seems specific to Cave’s particular world. But while his other work gets deep into characters and epic mythologies, each song here mentions people who could be characters, but all drawn in blurred sketches, and all unnamed and incomplete.

There is a violent, electric vagueness pervading this album (thanks largely to Bad Seed/composer Warren Ellis) and its explorations of grief, either personal or universal, with its central two tracks, “Magneto” and “Anthrocene” not so much carried by a melody but rather by an instrumental haze that’s settled around them, as Cave pulls loose everyday apocalyptic thoughts together. (On “Magneto”: “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming/I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” and on “Anthrocene”: “Well, I heard you been out looking for something to love/Close your eyes, little world/And brace yourself.”) On the album’s closing, title track, the artist sings of a “A jittery TV/Glowing white like fire,” and when thinking of the album as a whole, this image keeps returning to mind.

There’s an arc to the order of this album that does seem to structurally suggest a path towards at least occasional solace. After that bristly mention of the people in the supermarket queues (which many critics have noted is reflective of a moment in the documentary where Cave recalls being in a bakery and experiencing sudden anger at someone who’d expressed sympathetic words and touched his arm, because he realized he was suddenly a public “object of pity”), Cave closes out the track that follows “Girl in Amber,” with the words “Don’t touch me,” suddenly uttered by a man sinking into the distance, after singing in the plodding tone of an perpetual motion machine about disillusionment towards notions of an afterlife. From there, the album sinks further into a despairing place, with Cave — who’s often stated his belief in God — seeming to toy with nihilism. It isn’t until the last two songs — following the rawest, and only cathartic track (the aforementioned “I Need You”) — that Cave’s altered vision of the world begins to let hope in, even if “hope” now bears an unimpeachable undertone of futility.

The hymnal “Distant Sky” features two almost unbearably heavenly verses from Else Torp, a Danish soprano whose background is, per her website, in “baroque and even earlier music.” The duet blockades any emerging feelings of solipsism with empathy and connectedness, though God is still questioned in its lyrics. Thus the track doesn’t announce a conclusion to mourning, so much as a shift: “Let us go now, my only companion/Set out for the distant skies/Soon the children will be rising, will be rising/This is not for our eyes.” The last song — which soothes with delicate acoustic guitar, steady percussion and minimal piano — finds a simultaneity of peace and horror. It’s the album’s warmest song, yet it features visions of a “skeleton tree pressed against the sky” and sees the narrator calling “out across the sea,” where “the echo comes back empty,” but where, ultimately, in the last line of the album, “it’s alright now.”

“It’s alright now” is intentionally unconvincing as an absolutist statement, and the key word is “now.” It’s not all alright, it seems, but even in a last song full itself of horrors and isolation, even a flickering moment of alright-ness feels like an eternity of it.

The myth of the tortured artist is, indeed, a myth, but not because artists aren’t tortured — but rather because there are few people, artistic or not, who aren’t.  Even people who haven’t experienced the specific pain of traumatic loss are vulnerable to it. What’s unique, then, is the publicness with which some people are willing to display that pain. Though listening to albums like Skeleton Tree can bring up the question of being a tourist — even a fetishist — of something deeply personal and dreadful, works like Skeleton Tree emerge as something similar to Else Torp’s final vocal intervention on the tone of the album. Even as a work may contemplate emotional isolation, its ability to make someone going through a perfectly normal day become wrenchingly sad, the ability to arrest and move a stranger and steer their thoughts, is fundamentally collective. It’s a bizarre, parasitic, refreshingly humanist and also kind of gross connection that’s always existed between artists who use pain as their medium and their followers. Skeleton Tree will give you “the feels,” and you’ll wonder why you ever sought them in someone else’s dark place. But even so, you can’t help being enlightened by the spectrum of human emotion, vulnerability, and fragility Cave offers in these tracks.