Born of tragedy and catastrophe, the latest album from Cave is nevertheless dotted with beautiful moments amid the dark anguish.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change?” Nick Cave asks in the trailer for One More Time with Feeling, a documentary film that presents the songs from Skeleton Tree in the context of the nearly unthinkable change that shaped them. The catastrophic event, in this case, was the accidental death of Cave’s 15-year-old son. The songs written mostly before, but recorded afterwards, commune with this tragedy with a numb, hardly-there desolation that is as hard to look at as it is to turn away from.
Skeleton Tree further darkens the somber, restrained palette of 2013’s Push the Sky Away, relying on piano, strings, ghostly electronics and Cave’s hollowed-out, sleep-walking voice to carry it. Because the lyrics were already done before Cave’s life split in half, the songs do not directly refer to the son or his death. Still, words’ meanings change under pressure. There is no denying the anguish in “Jesus Alone,” as a buzz and whistle of feedback imply unbridgeable distance, solitude and loss. “With my voice, I am calling you,” Cave sings, in between visionary intervals of poetry, and you know who he is calling for and how unlikely an answer is. Later in “Girl in Amber,” he murmurs, “Some go on, some stay behind, some never move right on,” and though he may not have written the line about his lost child, it has surely become about him, the “little blue eyed boy” who moves with him down the hall.
Strings in Skeleton Tree are spare but necessary, as long-time collaborator Warren Ellis stirs up agitated dissonance in “Jesus Alone” and plumps up soft, soothing layers of sustained sound in “I Need You.” Backing vocals curve gently around fragile, haunted melodies “whoa-oh-oh-ohs” in “Rings of Saturn,” sighing “ah-ah-ahs” in the interstices of “Girl in Amber.” The piano, too, is integral, though quiet. It stands in for wordless rumination, in lingering, melancholy chords that hang like memory over empty vistas. There is a solace in these sounds, a solace that is absent from the lyrics, which reject religion and cliché to look hard at the bald fact of loss.
Skeleton Tree has some painfully beautiful moments, none more harrowing or lovely than “Distant Sky.” Here Cave enlists the lovely soprano voice of Else Torp, a Danish classical singer known for her interpretations of early and baroque music. “Let us go now, my only,” she sings with a high crystal clarity, a shaft of light piercing this dim and mournful vista. Cave’s voice is a shadow beside her, worn nearly through, exhausted, and gorgeous, too, in its way, because it sounds so true.
The album ends on an upswing, in the title track, the steadiness of rhythm bracing the tune in a way that has been, up to now, mostly absent. Cave’s voice wobbles as he finishes in a chorus that goes, “and it’s all right now” to the fade, and who can blame him? He does go on, though, as one does. Skeleton Tree is a testament to his art, his flaying honesty and his persistence in the wake of devastating loss.