On the opening track of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album Skeleton Tree, the bandleader immediately draws allusions to the recent tragic death of his son, while blurring the line between real and fantasy.
Throughout, “Jesus Alone,” Nick Cave repeatedly utters the line, “With my voice, I am calling you” after directly calling out to a series of figures in each verse. These characters move from the whimsical “woman in a yellow dress, surrounded by the charm of hummingbirds,” to the fantastically off-putting “African doctor harvesting tear ducts.” Intermittently, there are lines in this song that seem to reference the passing of Cave’s son, who passed away earlier this year. However, despite the poignancy of events within his own life, Cave chooses to not dwell on his own personal hardships and instead includes others’ experiences of loss and misfortune. This track – which is anchored by a constant Swans-esque droning – feels mystical as Cave summons all walks of life and imagination. Cave melds together the worlds of real and fantasy throughout this album, as he conveys his thoughts on death, religion, and love.
Much like David Bowie’s album Blackstar, which came out earlier this year, Skeleton Tree’s lyrics often face death head-on. Due to the circumstances within their lives at the time, both Bowie and Cave as songwriters were certainly cognizant of their mortality throughout their respective recording processes. As a result, death is approached bluntly and hopelessly. On the song “Anthrocene,” Cave bleakly admits, “There are powers at play more forceful than we.”
The similarities between these two albums don’t stop there, either. Both Bowie and Cave’s albums employ dissonant and experimental sounds that fittingly cohabitate with the dark lyrics and subject matter of the songs. Although sometimes the instrumentals on Skeleton Tree can be hard to digest, when a sonically beautiful moment occurs, it stands out. On the spacy, synth-driven “Rings of Saturn,” Cave discloses a romantic encounter he had with a woman in a compelling way. This track also features one of the best cases of (wordless) backing vocals on the album, a musical piece that is harmonious and intimate, despite feeling concurrently distant.
The accounts of romance and lust on Skeleton Tree, however, are frequently intertwined with despair and desperation. On the track, “I Need You,” an emotionally powerful highlight of the album, Cave starts by proclaiming that, “When you’re feeling like a lover, nothing really matters anymore.” If taken out of context, that line could be featured in any popular love song. Yet, as this track progresses, Cave begins to sporadically recall the loss of his son and how that void has affected his entire life, including his love life. Even when Cave is catching the eye of a woman in a “red dress” or simply “standing in the supermarket,” as the song says, the loss of his son has tainted his ability to look positively on anything. The emotion on this song is so palpable that when Cave exclaims the words, “I need you,” it’s chillingly convincing. He does not just miss his son or want him back; he needs him, and no woman or material can replace that absence. Frankly, nothing really matters to him anymore.
Nick Cave has a tendency to fall back on poetic themes instead of lingering on events that are concrete or personal. As a result, he enters himself into multiple narratives throughout this album, but it is never easy to tell if the scenes that he has laid out are completely real at all or if he has created his own story– albeit a dark and twisted one.
For an album that is so incredibly cinematic and specific in its lyricism, it’s impressive how universal Skeleton Tree feels. Even after multiple listens, the songs on this album are still capable of eliciting an emotional response, despite the high potential for listeners to find no relevancy in the lyrics. Most of those emotions come from the sense that Cave has become a piece of his own poetry. A man who has had a long and successful career of making songs about death and loss, has now faced those elements himself.
Skeleton Tree is the sixteenth album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and while a lot of the lyricism has remained the same on the surface over the years, there is a new dynamic on this album that makes it more substantial than ever.
Favorite tracks: “Rings of Saturn” and “I Need You”