Through more than three decades leading the Bad Seeds (after coming to prominence with The Birthday Party), Australian rocker Nick Cave has reveled in his ability to tease out a theme. He stacks up vivid lines that are individually great, but seem to mean everything when added together. As with Bob Dylan when he would go winding down a long, reference-laden path like “Desolation Row,” Cave throws topics through a finely crafted prism, extrapolating varied shades from single themes.
Released earlier this month via Bad Seed Ltd, Skeleton Tree, Cave’s 16th LP with the Bad Seeds, doesn’t drift from this formula. The music builds from an ambient, macabre backdrop similar to 2013’s Push the Sky Away — soft, dreary washes of synths and distortion ebb and flow, making room for equally deliberate bits of piano and guitar. The songs still mix the feverish and the meticulous as Cave has long done so well. But the mood is especially bleak, as if all he can see is the blackness — the finality — of death.
Last year, Cave’s 15-year-old son fell to his death from a British cliff. And while that tragedy is never clearly addressed, Skeleton Tree is a record that mulls, mourns and grapples with mortality and loss.
The songs peel off layer after layer of beautifully expressed sorrow, Cave’s rambling croon reverberating with pain and determination. “You fell from the sky / Crash-landed in a field,” Cave sings with the first lines of opener “Jesus Alone,” before giving this entity other chilling faces — “You’re a young man walking / Covered in blood that is not yours;” “You’re a young girl full of forbidden energy / Flickering in the gloom;” “You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now.” In the chorus, he moans, “With my voice / I am calling you,” seeking solidarity with the hopeless
Each song that follows is equally brutal and moving, particularly the closing tandem: “Distant Sky” (which contemplates the spiritual unknown, stirred by the pristine pipes of Danish soprano Else Torp and synths that swell with heavenly grandeur) and “Skeleton Tree” (which dissolves that gossamer soundscape into a ballad led by piano and acoustic guitar, seeking answers to unknowable questions; Cave settles on the truth that “nothing is for free,” before repeating, “It’s alright now,” belting with a warmth that wants to believe).
Confronted with terrible grief, Cave reckons with variations on a single question: “Why?” The resulting collection sits with the very best of his catalog, an aching rumination on our finite existence.