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Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ Is Music From the Underworld

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Nick Cave’s 16th studio album Skeleton Tree graced the music world last week—and it’s darker than ever. Pour yourself a glass of whatever ails you, turn out the lights and weep a little with rock n’ roll’s “Prince of Darkness.”

It’s been three years since Cave’s last studio album Push the Sky Away. Since then, he’s released music with his regular backing band The Bad Seeds, and a book appropriately titled, The Sick Bag Song, which was initially composed on airplane sick bags during tours. But halfway through recording Skelton Key on the 15th of July 2015, his fifteen-year-old son Arthur died in a tragic cliff accident in Brighton, England.

Nick Cave writing on piano. Source

In conjunction with the release of the album, a documentary by Dominic Andrew titled One More Time with Feeling was screened at cinemas for one night only around the world. Andrew revealed the concern Cave had about promoting the album, “It made him feel sick, because he was going to have to discuss the context of the record with a whole bunch of journalists.” The press release further states:

“One More Time with Feeling evolved into something much more significant as Dominik delved into the tragic backdrop of the writing and recording of the album. Interwoven throughout the Bad Seeds’ filmed performance of the new album are interviews and footage shot by Dominik, accompanied by Cave’s intermittent narration and improvised rumination.”

Cave is no stranger to discussing life’s sadder moments. While both releases heavily feature the tragedy that befell Cave while recording the album, the film also discusses the artist’s musical process. 

The film is an ingenious way for Cave to enjoy releasing the album while not having to repeatedly discuss in interviews the circumstance surrounding his son’s death. This way, the film will abate the media’s attention on the tragedy, and not overshadow the music.

Jesus Alone is the first track off the album. The song features an ominous distorted tremolo drone that seems as if it’s groaning under the weight of the song’s symbolism. A high soaring ephemeral note glides along the spine of the song, while Cave’s melancholic voice sings lines such as, “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field…With my voice I am calling you,” that all too eerily evoke the circumstances of his son’s passing.

Rings of Saturn features falsetto woo-a woo’s drifting behind synth whips, that are as light as the spider Cave anthropomorphises in the songs lyrics. He rambles like a man with a broken off switch in Girl in Amber. In Magneto he sings “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming” over a deep moan that sounds like a hungry machine from the underworld.

Much of the album revolves around murky electronic loops and synths that give the album a futuristic dystopian quality. Cave’s voice is often wavering and dry like he is thirsty for relief.

The title track Skeleton Tree, closes the album with Cave optimistically repeating, “And it’s alright now,” like the weight on his chest had subsided or fallen away.

Cave sits in a unique category of alchemical songwriters—along the likes of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits—who can dive into the morose tides of the human experience only to resurface with it in the form of art. So in light of 2015’s tragedy and in typical Nick Cave fashion, audiences can expect Skelton Key to be dark, possibly his darkest album yet.