Wednesday, September 14, 2016

album review: 'skeleton tree' by nick cave and the bad seeds

I know the easiest way to start this. It's also the way I don't want to start this. It feels cheap and exploitative to acknowledge it, especially given how so many music websites have covered this story - I can't imagine how much it stings every time he might see a review and the first thing that's mentioned is... well...

Goddamn it, this is hard - harder than for most artists, mostly because of the acts who have defined my evolution as a music critic, Nick Cave looms as one of the biggest. His record The Good Son from 1990 I would call a classic 10/10 record, and that's not even counting Henry's Dream, Murder Ballads, The Boatman's Call, Tender Prey, and Push The Sky Away, the last of which was my best album of 2013. Spoilers, I stand by that pick too: some may consider it too slow and muted and impenetrable but there's a genuinely unsettling power in the cryptic writing once you decode it, one of the few records that when Nick Cave is called an 'apocalypse prophet', he earns the title. 

So of course when I heard he was working on a new project I was thrilled... and then came the news that his fifteen year old son Arthur had died in a tragic accident. And there's no way around the fact that it would colour the album, especially when Nick Cave had come back into the studio to finish the recording. Most of the songs had been written but later takes had been semi-improvised, as Nick Cave noted that he had lost his faith in 'narrative-based songs', the sort of statement that can ring as frightening coming from the man who wrote Murder Ballads - for such a storyteller to lose his faith in that form is understandable, but genuinely chilling and reflective of the deep, unyielding pain he had to be experiencing. As such, there was a part of me that didn't even want to listen to this record: it felt too personal, too real, almost reminiscent of Blackstar, the last album David Bowie wrote before he died. And as you can likely tell by this point, I was almost certain that this album would get to me as deeply, if not more so... but by this point, with so many critics hailing Skeleton Tree as one of the best records of this year - it's currently the highest rated record on Metacritic, if you put stock in such things - I had to hear it. What did I hear?

You know, it's easier to talk around this album than talk about the album itself. I can rattle off facts about it - how it's the shortest record of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' entire discography, how it follows the sound of Push The Sky Away but also takes steps towards electronic grooves and avant-garde spoken word, territory where Nick Cave has never stepped. How the record was mostly written and recorded before the tragedy and left more raw and imperfect in its finished state on Nick Cave's request, which I should hope is enough to silence the cynics and callow cretins who think he's some sort of grief profiteer, especially as so many of his words rang as eerily prophetic as Bowie's Blackstar did. Death weighs on this record, but it's a omnipresence rather than the subject - removed from that context this record would still be a harrowing, heartbreaking listen from an artist in the depths of pain that's impossible to fake. Adding context... well, it just means I can't listen to it in public.

But it's more than just the context, but Cave himself. Through decades in the industry his voice has spanned post-punk shrieks and cackles, the smooth baritone of singer-songwriters, the roars of hard rock, and the whispers of a man who has seen humanity at its best and worst. But always through these songs Cave has had a larger-than-life presence, a figure whose charisma and command of atmosphere has demanded attention beyond just his themes and indulgences. And yet Skeleton Tree shows there are weights that can bring low even figures such as him - his voice is the thinnest and most frail it has ever been, holding enough depth and power to draw the ear but also display that power cracked. His cadence is restless and aimless, often slipping off the measure and cracking at the edges, but it's that imperfection that reflects a raw pain and humanity that has always saved Cave from becoming a caricature but now is plainly seen. It recalls the sort of emotion you get watching figures of impossible strength buckle, or show the human emotion you never allowed yourself to believe they had. I would call it a tour de force performance... if I remotely believed there was anything being performed.

And as such the orchestration is minimal, and easily the most brittle of any Bad Seeds release. The richer soundscapes of Push The Sky Away are clawed back to smaller spaces that still evoke enough negative space to intensify the isolation. Take the opener: the buzzing, seething grind of the guitar, touched by swells of strings as a single clear broken minor chord keens over the waste against the barest of drums and piano... and yet each Cave word speaks, even before the fractured multi-tracking comes through, is a call through the warping emptiness. The next song 'Rings Of Saturn' breaks into glossy fragments of chilly synth that ebb off a crackling lo-fi drum machine as the thin backing vocals croon around Cave - openly flawed against the waves of melody and foundation of piano, but ethereal and haunting in a way that's lets the melody coax out the words. And yet 'Girl In Amber' takes that glitter and calcifies it, only letting it twinkle through faded synths and piano fragments, the backing vocals a foggy echo before the somber strings and hints of noise allows Cave an escape into the dust. And it gets darker from there: 'Magneto' is all sparse textured guitar pops and strums, melancholic pianos, and a mix where the soundwaves themselves seem to materialize into fragments of noise and feedback that still manages to bring together a real melody - one of the wonders of this album, for as much as it quivers and breaks there is always the foundation of composition beneath it. Of course, where that is most tested is the next track 'Anthrocene', where the tones keen over the piano foundation as the most spastic and unstable drumline roils over the bass of the track against a tide of popping fuzz that almost reminds me of Radiohead's The King Of Limbs, except given an alien gravitas that album never dared to touch. And yet the tension driven by that song translates into something more aching on 'I Need You' as the sparse tapping kickdrum and cymbal swell into a harsher synth as the backing vocals add just enough swell to match the accent of gentle acoustic touches as Nick Cave chokes back tears. And yet the tone of the grief seems to shift against the gentle touches of bells and organ on 'Distant Sky' - the pain is still very much there as faded drum fills cascade out of the darkness, but with the lilting guest vocals of Else Torp, you get a hint of that twinkle start to reemerge... but then Warren Ellis' strings start coming in and... yeah. Yeah.

Now before I get to the title track and the last song on this record, we need to talk about lyrics and themes - beyond the obvious, of course. But that's part of the unearthly mood about this record - Nick Cave has always written about death and loss and confronting the unknowable, with the framing to speak to everyone beyond just his cult following. And from the first song 'Jesus Alone', Cave embodies that prophet who speaks to all, both the pure and the damned, knowing that judgement is coming, although it is left ambiguous what it is. And yet the next song 'Rings Of Saturn' has him trapped and paralyzed, at the mercy of a venomous, spider-like creature, the sort of unexplained presence to which he cannot blame and yet seems aware something is deeply wrong - and only then do you realize that the astronomical symbol of the pagan god of agriculture was a sickle, a symbol that Christian religions would reinterpet to indicate a sign of death - all the more fitting from a creature weaving a web on rings that might appear gorgeous but are in reality frozen and desolate. And that web grows all the thicker on 'Girl In Amber', filled with references to the song the Bad Seeds have spun since '84... and yet the sound has stopped. The words are desolate, as hopes that ghosts truly linger have been dashed and he - and likely his wife, implied to be the woman in amber - are left alone in the emptiness, retreating inwards to seek either pain or escape, avoiding any touch that might further break him. And 'Magneto' gets all the darker - the opening implying the gory torture he worked in his songs, the graphic passions he worked through... and then to see himself now as a lesser man to be pitied raises both rage and yet a hidden desire to be just like them. He sees his frailties all the more sharply and those who would rend him asunder... the worlds he built so many illusions and dreams, and now touching them feels like going through the motions - he needs that one more time with feeling. 'Anthrocene' gets more clinical with it as he sees himself with the wider world as he sees humanity continuing to stumble in their search for love and yet have the power to shape that world... but not that far, as he is all the more acutely aware.  But now amidst the rest of the world, he can't avoid the pain for much longer, and cast against mundane supermarkets and his home, he sees a figure that may have come before but is now draped in red... and it's clear from Cave's delivery this is the closest he's coming to dealing with the truth: how no matter how hard he tries to stand firm or predict the future, he can't defeat death, and while his son has passed and will always be in his heart, he's not living there - he's not alive. 

But then this album did something I did not expect. I should have expected it - Push The Sky Away did something similar in its reserved, distant sort of way - but through all the bittersweet grief and anger and desolate loneliness comes 'Distant Sky', where he cuts the lamps and looks skyward as he admits that gods and dreams do not outlive us, represented by the many lights filling the sky... And yet he tugged away in the final verse. It is not for him to stare into the heavens where his son has moved on, his soul rising with the stars, at peace. The sun rose and set, but the stars linger. And then we get the title track and it's... gentle. Piano, a cushion of organ, strums of acoustic guitar and sparse drums as he stands alone on a Sunday morning, staring at a TV without the signal that goes beyond, an call sent out over the endless sea with only the echo that's answered. All the more of a sign that that the pain will always be there, always resonate in his mind... but as he sings in the final coda, it's alright now. The illusions are shattered and broken, the trauma remains open - nothing is for free, after all - but he'll live. It's a moment of bittersweet hope that doesn't render this record impossible to revisit in the same way Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell was, and while I'd thank Cave for giving us that respite... he needed it far more than I did. know, I've gotten comments on videos saying how dare I assign a rating or criticize art when I can't possibly know the struggle of its creation and message? It wasn't until I covered this record that those comments took real weight for me, because on some level this sort of art feels almost too intimate and painful to ever be released, the sort of shattering of one's self that I pray I never have to face. And yet for as lonely as this record can feel, it also shows the breaking of hubris, no longer the god with the red right hand but the man who shared the trauma so that we, like him, can find closure in the face of the one great certainty. It's raw, misshapen, imperfect, by far not an easy listen - and yet I can't imagine a piece that fulfills its mission quite like this. In other words... 10. That's two this year, next to Dave Cobb's compilation masterpiece Southern Family. Both deal with family and death... and yet both end with the simplest statement, touched by gospel: 'it's alright'.

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