Nick Cave is often at his most pretentious, and his most farcically overblown, when he indulges his demonic preacher alter-ego. As his croon has deepened and mellowed in his later years, he has developed a voice that is almost excessively rich in drama. His lyrics, which already walk a fine line between the poetic and the ponderously cliché, can seem exaggerated into melodramatic farce.
This, however, is a rare record where Cave truly sounds sincere. I have no doubt that his previous works have been performed with unshakeable sincerity and conviction – his passion and presence is undeniable – but here it for once sounds less like an act, a character, a stylisation. It is almost painfully real.
It is an utterly affectless album – a truly rare, perhaps even unprecedented event for a Nick Cave piece. Even in his most spare moments, as on albums like The Boatman’s Call, Cave seems to inhabit a character or an archetype. Throughout his career he’s projected a gothic swagger, a deranged, gloomy charisma; here he seems to simply be himself. The spare accompaniment – at times harsh, at others elegant –weaves around the wounded Cave to form a work of uncommon naturalism.
This is a record that I doubt could have been pulled off with such power without Cave’s current collaborator-in-chief Warren Ellis. With the departures of Blixa Bargeld and then Mick Harvey, the Bad Seeds have shifted from their Southern Gothic theatrics into a mellower, more quietly brooding band. The guitars which once dominated their sound, now gone with Harvey and Bargeld, have not been replaced. In their stead the esotericism of Ellis has moved to the forefront – a sound that is all discordant, at times hauntingly pretty strings, rumbling bass and spare, clacking percussion. The Bad Seeds recent work has been a slow slide towards the sparse, atmospheric desolation of Ellis and Cave’s soundtrack work. Skeleton Tree pushes this even further, almost abandoning music entirely as it stresses Cave’ spoken word sadness.
Skeleton Tree forms the band’s slightest work, not merely in the running time, but in its utter emptiness and fragility. Fragility is something that, for all Cave’s musings on death, murder and the macabre, has rarely been a central element of his act. On Skeleton Tree it permeates every pained moment. Even on tracks like the opener, Jesus Alone, his baritone intonations are lacking some of the resonance they’d normally carry, wavering and cracking and undercut by thin, high backing vocals. It may seem like an oxymoron, but Cave’s voice here is at its strongest when it’s weak.
It is not entirely desolate, however. At times, as on Rings of Saturn, with its glittering keys and swooning backing vocals, the album achieves a sparse, nostalgic form of sweetness. Indeed, the album’s second half as a whole is a shade brighter than the almost overwhelming melancholy of Skeleton Tree’s opening.
Before that, however, Cave reaches his nadir on the near spoken word Magneto, which charts a spiral into introspection and depression accompanied by suggestions of music more than actual melodies. In Cave’s monotone, near-broken repetition of ‘ one more time with feeling’, you can hear someone past the rage of grief, the suffocation of sadness, and now entering a near vegetative state.
From this broken state, he re-enters the world in the Anthrocene age, the age of man, and whatever wonders that may bring. To Cave, in this colder, older world, he seems to find warmth, and, if not warmth, a renewed interest in this strange, sad world around him. Cave emerges from the despair of the album’s opening half as a little worm, reawakened to a harsh, cold world, but ready to love again. Needing to love again, perhaps more than anything.
This need is built upon in the passionate, almost pained I Need You. In an album of muted tones and spoken songs, I Need You comes as a revelation with its suggestion of conventionality. But it too is filled with that same longing defined by pain; there is more desperation than sensuality to Cave’s ode to his wife.
The overriding theme of the album, excepting of course the loss of Cave’s son, may be his relationship to his wife – a rare source of light as Cave wallows in his pain and self-examination. From this there comes a cathartic form of optimism buried deep in the abyssal gloom of Cave’s mourning.
So emotionally raw is the album that it makes it difficult to really assess. The sense that reviewing Skeleton Tree is like grading someone else’s grief is a troubling, problematic train of thought. What Cave has produced is something that can seem almost too intimate for public consumption; it’s a public purging of mourning that is also inevitably a product. It’s disquieting.
The album’s second side, with its glimmer of hope, is what makes it bearable. The pain evoked here is so real and so powerfully unsentimental that to endure an entire album dedicated to it would be an experience of such overwhelming despair that one would wonder what could possibly have compelled Cave to release it. Cave bemoans the looks of pity and the showers of sympathy that have served as his shadow since his son’s death; this album seeks neither pity or sympathy. Indeed, it seems to seek nothing from its listener, only an audience to Cave’s raging emotions. It may be another performance then, but the album’s great triumph is to, without sentiment and without mawkishness, offer a ray of light amidst the darkness.