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An in-depth look at Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 'Skeleton Tree'


In 1989 ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’ was published, the first of Nick Cave’s two novels. The book was the result of Cave’s time spent working almost self incarcerated in his then Kreuzberg home. And the Ass Saw the Angel not only proved Cave’s ability as an author, but more so saw one of the major transitional points between the talented but self-destructive frontman cliché as Cave becomes one of the most prolific and respected artists of the 21st Century.

Stylistically reminiscent of his lyrics, the novel follows the life of troubled mute Euchrid Eucrow tackling topics of religion, child neglect, violence and mental health. But there was one aspect of the novel foretold which became tragically relevant, the book begins with the birth and death of Eucrow’s twin brother.

Last week saw the cinematic screening of ‘One More Time With Feeling’, the accompanying documentary to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ new album Skeleton Tree, and also Cave’s outlet for dealing with the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur Cave.The documentary managed to combine beautifully raw emotion, personal reflection, art and even touches of humour through Andrew Dominik’s stunning cinematography. Merging performances of each track with intimate insights into the lives of Cave alongside wife Susie Bick, son Earl and Cave’s Bad Seeds band-mates.

In one of the many strikingly harrowing scenes Bick comments on her fear of how life seems to have a twisted way of following her husband’s lyrics. This seems only too relevant in that much of the initial writing for Skeleton Tree was completed before the unfortunate passing of their son; an album that from start to finish feels like homage to the late Arthur Cave.

The Bad Seeds as a whole are sonically and visually striking throughout the documentary but it is the collaboration of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which ultimately grabs the attention.

Cave and Ellis’ writing partnership is one that is often underrated and could legitimately hold its own against Lennon and McCartney – or any other clichéd comparison. The documentary sees the two discuss not only their musical kindred relationship but in tear-jerking emotion their friendship and admiration for one and other.

Released a month prior to the album, opening track ‘Jesus Alone’ debuted an insight into what to expect from Skeleton Tree. Ellis’ haunting drone running throughout alongside Cave’s subtle piano chords offers plenty of traditional Bad Seeds characteristics, however there is an aspect of something entirely different from previous records as the song creates a genuine sense of unnerving tension and intimacy.

Opening line ‘You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field’ cuts deep with an honest, straight talking rawness. Similarly in it’s eerie drone and momentum ‘Magneto’ seems to weave frank and open lyrics with the Gothic styles and religious metaphors of previous work conforming to a non-conventional song format recurrent throughout the album.

‘I Need You’ is one of the tracks with a more conservative structure, a real album highlight. The beautiful non-committal drums guide the track alongside its synth voicing and group harmonies while Cave’s raw emotive voice provides genuinely heart-wrenching lyrics: ‘nothing really matters when the one you love is gone’, and ‘just breath, just breath I need you’ juxtaposed with comments on the mundane ‘I saw you standing there in the supermarket’, ‘I’m standing in the doorway’.

A track, which seems to have started life as a love song, has taken on a much deeper responsibility in conveying the feelings of both Cave and Bick after their son’s death, and Cave’s difficulty in finding rationality in everyday life.The penultimate number ‘Distant Sky’, begins to bring a closure to the album. The angelic female chorus line ‘let us go now’ and chamber strings combined with Cave’s ‘they told us our dreams would out live us, but they lied’, seem to comment directly on the albums overriding theme in a tone of almost acceptance.

The topic surrounding the record brings a personal eliminate that is hard not to relate to each song, even if much of the music and lyrics were written prior to the ill-fated event of last July the energy and mood are deep-set within the recording.

Skeleton Tree holds an honesty and openness throughout which levels above almost any other living songwriter. With a ‘warts and all’ approach in both lyrical and musical content the record is a truly striking piece of work, proving that even in the face of utter tragedy Nick Cave’s artistic abilities seem to be limitless.

Adam Robson.