It seems somewhat inevitable that, just over a year after the tragic death of his fifteen-year-old son Arthur, most of the early reaction to the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album has focused on how much of a role the accident plays in the new music. Cave himself says that you should take the connections with a pinch of salt. Most of the songs, he claims, were written before Arthur’s life was cut tragically short. And we shouldn’t forget that grief, loss, fear, and the afterlife are all themes that Cave has touched on throughout his career. It isn’t impossible to imagine him writing these songs before he heard the earth-shattering news.
When listening to the album, though, none of those considerations really matter. Fans and critics alike will struggle to separate songs like ‘Girl in Amber’, ‘I Need You’, and ‘Distant Sky’ from the context of Cave’s current situation. The refrain of ‘nothing really matters/when the one you love is gone’, and lyrics such as ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever’, in ‘I Need You’ would be heart-breaking at the best of times. But when croaked out in Cave’s mournful tones, and with thoughts of his son in mind, they are almost too much to bear. Similar can be said of the lines in ‘Girl in Amber’ when he goes from remembering lacing ‘up the shoes of your little blue eyed boy’ to knowing that ‘the world would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone’. Perhaps most devastating of all is the verse in ‘Distant Sky’ when Cave laments the fact that ‘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’. If Cave didn’t write that verse about his son, then it becomes not only upsetting but also eerily prophetic.
Added to all that is the fact that Cave’s voice is at its most delicate throughout this album. If all the songs were written previous to the tragedy, it doesn’t change the fact that they were recorded afterwards. There are so many occasions during these eight beautiful songs when it feels like Cave’s voice will crack; when it feels like this much-adored singer is close to collapse.
All of that combines to create an album that is undoubtedly difficult to listen to. On the first few runs through, in fact, it might feel like a record that is just too crushing to listen to in comfort. But Cave fans are a hardy bunch. They are well versed in songs that relentlessly tug on the tear ducts. And if you can fight through those initial unbearable listens, you should start to appreciate an album that is both powerful and beautiful. The three songs mentioned above, those most closely associated with Arthur’s death, will actually become the highlights. There is all the trademark Cave you could be looking for, with an extra level of emotion that might take Skeleton Tree above previous album Push the Sky Away. ‘Distant Sky’ in particular, is up there with his best work.
As for the other five tracks, well, it would be difficult to pick out one you could call filler. ‘Skeleton Tree’ is probably the other standout, and fans of Push the Sky Away will feel an immediate connection to ‘Jesus Alone’. It might not be an album you can listen to at every moment but, like Bowie’s Blackstar from earlier this year, it is a work that deals with death in a way that is nothing short of admirable. There are a lot of links between those two albums, actually. One being the fact that they should definitely be considered among the year’s best.