I’ve never been that close to the music of Nick Cave in the past. It may partly to do with my first exposure to his music being his duet with Kylie Minogue from his ‘Murder Ballads’ album, which is perhaps not the perfect place to begin. My next exposure to his work came with Mark and Lard’s parodies of two his songs on their Radio 1 show, and this, unfairly, established Cave in my mind as an overly po-faced, serious man, there to be taken the mickey out of.
Over the years, I heard plenty of his songs that I liked, and a few I wasn’t so keen on, but I never really made that emotional connection with his music that causes me to truly fall in love with an artist. In 2010 I moved to Brighton, where Cave also resides (Hove, actually). Cave had been hugely critically acclaimed, especially in more recent years, to the point where he almost seemed above criticism. I’m sure this was never entirely the case, but it seemed especially true in Brighton and Hove, where he was seen as a local hero in his adopted city, and the contrarian in me wanted to proclaim him as overrated, although the knowledge I did actually enjoy many of his songs (and not wanting to be a douchebag) usually stopped me from doing so.
In July 2015, some time after I had left Brighton and started a family of my own, Cave’s 15 year old son Arthur, fell from a cliff and died. I felt for Cave and his family of course, and shuddered at the thought that I had walked along the underpass where Arthur had fallen many times myself, but the tragedy only briefly flickered across my consciousness, as other peoples tragedies are wont to do. I was no doubt too mired in my own minor trials and tribulations, to think much about what had happened to the Cave family.
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, came ‘Skeleton Tree’, Nick Cave’s first album since the loss of his son. It wouldn’t be true to claim the album is about that event, as most of the lyrics were written before it occured , even if many are eerily prescient (“You fell from the sky” is the first line of the album for example. However, the accompanying film to the album ‘One More Time With Feeling’ made clear the effect the loss had on the recording of the album, and even had it not, if you are aware of Cave’s, it’s impossible to separate the album from that event. Cave’s voice, usually a powerful, menacing thing is fragile, almost broken at times, and the structure of the album seems to mimic the journey of loss. Opener ‘Jesus Alone’ has an angry, raging quality, ‘Girl in Amber’ is plaintive and yearning. ‘I Need You’, is the sound of knowing but not accepting, a lost love, a broken heart. Closing track ‘Skeleton Tree’ has a dreamlike quality, and is as close as such an album can get to hope, an acknowledgment at least, that somehow things must continue.
Some has said, critically or otherwise, that the album has an unfinished feel, but to me it is a masterpiece of arrangement. Instrumentation which was too dense or loud, could have overwhelmed Cave’s voice and lyrics, which are as good as any he has ever written. Allegorical at times, at others almost painfully direct. On ‘Ring of Saturn’ words almost tumbling over each other, on ‘Distant Sky’ each phrase drawn out, given time to breathe, including perhaps the most powerful line on the album “they told us our gods would forgive us, but they lied”. Cave’s long term collaborator Warren Ellis, adds perfect, subtle instrumentation to these songs, minimal pianos, gently pulsing electronics, touches of strings, occasional but expertly used backing vocals. The boldest, most successful choice on the album is the use of female soprano Else Torp to duet with Cave on the aforementioned ‘Distant Sky’.
‘Skeleton Tree’ is a deeply, deeply beautiful album, my favourite of the year, and perhaps the decade. No other album has made me want to listen to it repeatedly this way for a long time. But part of me never wants to listen to it again, and wonders why it appeals at all. For i’m not sure I could claim to have enjoyed this album. It moves me, close to tears. It compels me to listen, almost overwhelms me at times. But how can I enjoy the aftermath of such a tragedy? It feels voyeuristic, even ghoulish sometimes, to listen to these songs
Of course it is a question as old as music itself, why do we want listen to sad songs? Even my two year old daughter will sometimes ask to hear a sad song, and ask what it’s about. It’s not a question I can hope to answer, but for me I think has something to do with the need to understand, to share, to empathise with every aspect of the human condition. We can never truly understand an event such as this of course, even those of us who have experienced something similar, for every tragedy is tragic in its’ own unique way. Cave comes closer than anyone else could to making you understand, and makes me feel that, if the world throws the worst that it can at me, there will be someone out there who understands me.
When you listen to a song about an unrequited love, a broken heart, you know that some day the heart will mend. When you think of the loss of a child, you don’t know that it ever will. No music, no art, no matter how beautiful, can ever lessen a tragedy such as the one Nick Cave and his family have experienced. I can only hope that, one way or another, they can find some form of peace.