Ewan Gleadow

Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Copyright: Bad Seed Ltd.

With such a consistent discography thus far, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have thrived and survived on relative critical acclaim, and a comfortable niche of gothic rock and punk blues. It’s a steady mixture, one that works far better than it should. Death metal lyrics backed by a slow, motivated band that utilise acoustics, woodwind, and brass, rather than electric chords and heavy, uncontrollable solos. After the tragic death of his son, Cave puts himself and his band to the test by crafting arguably their most emotive and open album. 

It’s a shaky start, with the album’s opener, Jesus Tree, doing little in the way of emotive or musical accomplishment. Merely testing the waters is how it feels, the calm before the inevitable heartbreak. For that, Jesus Tree serves its purpose well. It’s not until Girl in Amber kicks in with its mellow piano, its tortured soul singing at the centre of it all, that we get a feeling for Cave’s true thought process. Far less focused on the musical and instrumental moments, Skeleton Tree feels much closer to a spoken word album than a traditional Bad Seeds release. 

The tragedies that have befallen Cave have clearly impacted his lyrical witticisms. Magneto is far from his best-written song, but it should be applauded for capturing a mind flooded by pain and anguish. A sensitive side to Cave is opened up for all to behold, and it’s not unless you’ve listened to his previous works that you realise how rare an occasion it is to see Cave put everything out there. He often speaks of the horrors and tragedies of mortality, but now Cave finds himself with first-hand experience, and the emotions that immediately follow. They’re all captured here, an album that feels both graceful and minimalistic. 

Pangs of sickened irony muse on Cave and The Bad Seeds’ earlier release, The Firstborn is Dead. With Blind Lemon Jefferson closing out the mid-80s piece, it’s the most tonally similar to anything on Skeleton Tree, a bleak imagining and creative offering from an anguished group still moving through waves of grief. It’s the closest piece I’ve encountered from Cave thus far to really tackle the emotional depth here, along with the clear similarities in pacing and simplicity at its core. To put the loss of his son into perspective on this album, I Need You feels like the most poignant and obvious choice. “I’ll miss you when you’re gone / because nothing really matters / I thought I knew so much better / and I need you” croons Cave, the steady drumbeat backing him up, giving way to the raw emotion on display.  

Skeleton Tree isn’t anything like the previous encounters I’ve had with Cave and his Bad Seeds. Mired by grief and sorrow, the morbid nature of his lyrics from previous years takes a completely different, personal meaning. An ambient, droning piece from Cave, one that strikes its audience with ethereal content from beginning to end. It’s as much a public outing of his grief as a coping mechanism for the death of his son, the poetic beauty is obvious, if a little saddening. Cave usually hides away behind strong lyrics that, for the most part, don’t seem to articulate full truths, Skeleton Tree is the first time he drops his faux stance entirely, letting the despondency flow through him and out onto an incredibly tolling forty-minute piece.