Since he first broke free of the Birthday Party in 1984 and picked up with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has developed and honed an absolutely hypnotizing and disparate body of work (from angry and occasionally manic with Grinderman to soulful on The Boatman’s Call to a bluesy, rootsy and gothic beast on Murder Ballads and Abattoir Blues, and that’s really only the fastest, barest analysis), but the concept of introspection – of genuine self-reflection and true sensations of love – has always been carefully avoided. The reasons why such avoidance have been perpetrated could be debated endlessly, or fans could simply look to the tremendous personal development which has occurred on Skeleton Tree. For the first time, it feels as though Nick Cave has lowered his guard and chosen to sing a set of sweet, romantic songs devoid of artifice to his audience.
Now, granted, even the first song on the album (“Jesus Alone”) features lines of perilous darkness like “You cried beneath the dripping trees/ Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid,” but those are resolved quickly by the couplet “With my voice/ I’m calling you” which totally passes light through the darkness and sweeps all the ominous clouds from the picture. It’s very, very guarded (at first), but it has a way about it which is intrinsically fascinating.
As the album continues, the throes of romance build and the darkness which has always been a part of Cave’s persona gets softened and mixed in so that it is no longer a clear or dramatic feature of the running – the darkness just heightens the passion of the music instead. On “Rings Of Saturn,” for example, Cave punctuates the build which began at the start of the song and was so clearly inflated by digital means by lyrically painting a beautiful, panoramic image complete with examinations of “upside down and inside out” as an emotional state as well as a “black fly on the ceiling” as (presumably) an image of imperfection before opening up its view to reveal shoppes and a town and beautiful scenery before contracting its focus again for “This is the moment – this is exactly where she was born to be.” That moment in the song freezes an image in listeners’ minds and it is gorgeous, and feels knee-buckling in its artful delivery. That moment is incredible – and it’s only forty-five seconds into the song. Musically, “Rings Of Saturn” doesn’t build much beyond that point and chooses instead to offer listeners snapshots of life as viewed through that aperture for the remainder of the song’s running.
The senses of romance and the obvious desire to retain it expressed by “Jesus Alone” and “Rings Of Saturn” endure through “Girl In Amber,” “Anthroscene” (which goes down in history as being the song which makes hearts melt with the words, “I hear you’ve been out there looking for something to love” set over a very artful Bjork-ian melange of static) and “I Need You” before finally beginning to find a resolution in “Distant Sky” where Cave declares his love for a woman and seeks to make an exit to more beautiful surroundings with her (who is played out marvellously with some help from Theatre Of Voices soprano Else Torp). In that, one might think that resolution for the record had been reached, but the album’s title track goes the extra mile and ends the album on an upward incline as it spontaneously enlarges its sound and warms the arrangement with more acoustic instruments and a 4/4 rock rhythm figure. As it plays through, listeners will feel as though they’re being filled up with hope and joy as Cave wanders through a morning landscape facing a brand new day before him. Granted, he still concedes some fatalist slogans here and there (“Nothing is for free”) but also sees hope in the end as he continually repeats, “It’s alright now” to close both the song and the album.
Taken as a complete experience, Skeleton Tree is totally captivating and fantastic, but the best part is the fact that it’s impossible to point at any one particular aspect of it and say it’s the best; from the very beginning it’s easy for a listener to simply immerse himself in it, and the desire quickly becomes to simply absorb it – to just take it all into oneself. That said, going further and offering that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ sixteenth studio album proves that the band still has plenty of new and original ideas to present feels redundant. It’s already plain and clear that’s true. Just go buy the album reader – Skeleton Tree is a sure classic.
(Bad Seed Ltd./Kobalt/Sony Music)