Nick Cave has made a career out of lurking in the shadows, charting a 30-year path from driving post-punk, to magisterial gothic rock into a gloomy, sinister aesthetic entirely his own. But in 2015, the Australian icon was thrust under a media spotlight when his son Arthur died unexpectedly after falling from a cliff.
It is unsurprising, then, that Skeleton Tree, completed in the wake of this tragedy, is his most vulnerable album to date. When I started listening to it for the first time, I felt a mixture of apprehension and morbid curiosity at the thought of hearing Cave in the throes of such personal turmoil. The subject matter seems almost too personal. But as it begins, like it or not, Skeleton Tree takes you with an icy hand and guides you down to its harrowing depths.
Although revealing, the album is by no means confessional. Cave shrouds the record in cryptic imagery and allusions, but when he delivers lines like “I knew the world would stop spinning since you’ve been gone,” there is no mistaking what they refer to. Throughout, he filters the harsh reality of loss through an imaginative lens, and this approach lends Skeleton Tree its immense power. It is both nauseating and awe-inspiring to hear, as Cave’s voice conveys the stages of grief so convincingly that it feels as if you’re there with him, mourning.
The impact is magnified by the accompanying instrumentals, co-created with Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis. These songs are largely devoid of structure — they’re made of little more than spectral electronic tones and the occasional orchestral swell. As the tracks drift in and out of focus, they embody the tension between numbness and overwhelming sorrow that characterizes Cave’s performance. When, on “Magneto,” he coldly states, “the urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming,” the despondence in his voice seems to crawl beneath the skin, delivering a rush of sadness and anger straight from within his own mind.
Instead of his usual croon, Cave spends much of the record in a baritone drawl that borders on spoken word, bringing his anguish to the fore. On “Girl in Amber” his voice shudders when he whispers, “don’t touch me,” to voyeuristic effect. As the album progresses, his devastation turns inconsolable. The climactic “I Need You” sees Cave moaning the titular phrase, sounding as if he were sobbing directly into the microphone. In such moments, the album makes for an unbearable listen, yet remains impossible to resist.
By documenting his grief so explicitly, Nick Cave has created a hugely resonant and engaging piece of music. The album’s closing line, “it’s all alright now,” leaves the listener not with a sense of closure, but only a glimpse at being ready to move forward. Skeleton Tree depicts the complex effects of loss with startling clarity and precision. No longer content to play with tragedy, Cave confronts it head-on. In having the courage to do so, he has created what may be his definitive work of art.