Cave, along with his bandmates in the Bad Seeds, were working on a new record last year when tragedy interrupted their efforts: Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur had fallen from a cliff in his native Brighton, England after experimenting with LSD for the first time. He succumbed to his injuries hours later in the hospital. Not long after Arthur’s funeral, Cave and his band returned to the studio to resume work on the record.What is that elusive quality that imbues certain pieces of music with a genuine sense of pain? Would Skeleton Tree sound so piercingly sad without these horrific background details? A darkly-themed album is hardly a departure for Cave. His impressive catalog (16 albums and counting) abounds with tales of death, pain, and heartbreak. In his early years, these tales were often delivered in a baroque storyteller’s voice that sounded a bit like a cross between Faulkner and Lovecraft. But Cave has since proved to be a surprisingly versatile songwriter.
He can regale you with a story of disgruntled sideshow workers vainly searching for an escaped member of their troupe (“The Carny”). He can gleefully recount the exploits of two road-tripping lovebirds on a killing spree (“Deanna”). He can also write a love song that’s as tender as it is vulnerable (“The Ship Song”). However, Cave is probably best known for “Red Right Hand” — the phrase is lifted from Paradise Lost — an apocalyptic ballad which has cropped up on numerous soundtracks over the years, most recently in Peaky Blinders‘ opening title sequence.
Skeleton Tree’s closest predecessor is The Boatman’s Call. It took a bus, a tram, and several months’ worth of allowance for me to get my seventh grade hands on it when it was released back in 1997 — and my first listen was a big disappointment. What I heard was a far cry from Cave’s abrasive beginnings. The subdued crooner sitting at the piano bore little resemblance to the mercurial front man who physically assaulted audience members when he performed with the chaotic post-punk outfit The Birthday Party.
Gone also were the gaudy tales of murder and mayhem. Instead, Cave’s lyrics were now pensive, spare, and restrained. There was existential anguish (“People Ain’t No Good”), surprising expressions of spiritual yearning (“There Is a Kingdom,” “Brompton Oratory”), and love songs so earnest in their delivery, one searched in vain for a comforting touch of irony (“Into My Arms”).
What is that elusive quality that imbues certain pieces of music with a genuine sense of pain? To my ear, it often sounds like a combination of fear, repulsion, and deep, deep weariness — which brings to mind specific albums from my own collection: Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Joy Division’s Closer, Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around, and The Eels’ Electro-Shock Blues, to name a few. Skeleton Tree can now take its place among these weary testaments of human anguish.
Why do I listen to this stuff? By all accounts, it’s distressing music; the listening experience is often exceedingly uncomfortable and sometimes even harmful. On certain days, for instance, my wife will ask me to refrain from listening to Joy Division’s “The Eternal.” She’s wise to do so. At other times, however, these bitter melodies are a balm to me. I’m hardly unique in this regard. Most of us have private reservoirs of sonic pain that we draw on from time to time. True, these songs can inflict real damage. But at other times, they offer a consolation that goes well beyond superficial relief. Sometimes grief can only be answered with grief.
In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote this in response to the loss of his son, Eric, in a mountain-climbing accident:
But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as a comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
Skeleton Tree is an invitation to sit beside Cave on his mourning bench.The album begins on an eerie note with “Jesus Alone.” Cryptic lines impose an initial distance between Cave and his listeners: “You cried beneath the dripping trees/Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid.” This gap is bridged, though, as soon as Cave wearily intones, “With my voice/I am calling you.” The entire album is punctuated by these odd moments when Cave emerges from behind the curtain to express his agony directly. The chorus grows more dissonant as the song progresses: the sound of a lone cello scrapes across the dissolving melody; spectral percussion plods in the background; voices wail behind Cave in falsetto.
Things grow bleaker with the tortured “Girl in Amber.” Cave’s voice weakens as he sings: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber till you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/Well, I don’t think that any more/The phone it rings no more.” The production comes apart and the song fades out with Cave pleading, “Don’t touch me.” These are the moments when the safety net collapses. Here is pain so intimate that to look away seems like desertion, and to listen on seems as crass as loitering in a trauma unit.
“I Need You” begins with a warbling organ tone that sounds uncomfortably close to the opening notes of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. This is a track many will have a hard time enduring. The pain in Cave’s voice is unmistakable. Indeed, he struggles to stay on pitch for most of the song. In our era of slick production and glitzy studio polish, it says a lot that Cave et al. opted to leave all these vulnerable elements as they are. “Just breathe, just breathe/I need you,” Cave implores; the song terminates.
But it’s the funereal “Distant Sky” that’s the hardest for me to listen to. It also happens to be my favorite song on the album. Cave sings “They told us our gods would outlive us/They told us our dreams would outlive us/They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied” and his wavering baritone is answered by the angelic voice of Danish soprano Else Torp: “Let us go now, my only companion/Set out for the distant skies/Soon the children will be rising, will be rising/This is not for our eyes.” The music is equal parts despairing and elegiac, perfectly matching the sensibilities of both performers.
It’s difficult to put into words why a beautiful melody coupled with tragedy is so heartbreaking. Maybe it has something to do with the way in which beauty seems to point forward to some eventual wholeness. At the same time, the very distance of this apparent promise may serve only to aggravate the pain of present circumstances. Maybe we are reluctant to surrender our hurt. Maybe we’re all too eager to eject it from our wounded souls. Or maybe our emotions are simply overwhelmed by all of this incongruity.
I think of Lou Reed singing, “Oh, it’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on.” On paper, these words appear trite and flippant. But Reed breaks your heart when he sings to you about his perfect day. Cave and Torp do the same as they sing about distant skies and rising children.Skeleton Tree‘s title track is oddly serene, resigned even. Gentle piano lines are carried by graceful brush strokes, and the song plays out not so much like a sigh of relief as a brief moment of reprieve. Cave’s singing is subtler here as well, sounding wounded only when he comes to the line, “Nothing is for free.” But it’s the final lyric that will catch many people off-guard: “And it’s alright now.” The phrase is repeated in a slow incantatory manner, to hypnotic effect.
We know this phrase is often used when it isn’t true. We say it when all other words have been exhausted, repeating it over and over again like a formula as someone shakes in our arms. But we don’t say “It’s alright” because things are, in fact, alright. Rather, we say it because the world is still turning: diapers still need changing, bills still need paying, and floors still need sweeping. We say it because we are still here — Arthur’s father is telling you that he is still here.
Nick Cave is still here.