Nick Cave's haunting portrait of grief
The Australian singer was halfway through writing his new album, Skeleton Tree, when his son suffered a fatal brain injury in a fall. Our man listens to Nick Cave's pain
Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30
'I went to Graceland once," Nick Cave told the New York Times in 2014. "The rest of the band went in, but I stayed out on the kerb, smoking cigarettes and feeling sorry for myself. Those last Elvis performances - the ones for television, when he was already sick - I must have watched those clips a hundred times. They're like crucifixions. I couldn't bring myself to go inside."
Listening to Skeleton Tree is a bit like that: sometimes you can't bring yourself to go inside.
Skeleton Tree by Nick and his trusty muckers The Bad Seeds is not an easy listen. Nor could it ever be. He was halfway through writing the album when, on July 14 last year, his 15-year-old son, Arthur, suffered a fatal brain injury after falling on to the underpass of Ovingdean Gap in Brighton after taking LSD. He died that evening.
In One More Time With Feeling, Andrew Dominik's film ostensibly about the creation of Skeleton Tree, Nick says: "People say he lives in my heart. I say 'yeah', but he doesn't live at all."
The first line of the first song on Skeleton Tree, the raw and stripped back Jesus Alone, is crushingly sad: "You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur. Flowers spring from the ground, lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers."
There is more where that came from. "I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber 'til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/I don't think that any more," he sings on Girl In Amber.
You can see why Jess Denham in the London Independent called this, the Bad Seeds' 16th album, a "shatteringly visceral portrait of grief".
Listening to the album evokes for me the images and feelings of film-maker Terrence Malick's classic reflection on existence and creation, Tree Of Life. It gets in on your emotions and your head. It also had me thinking of that famous line from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, "I talk to God but the sky is empty".
The album is brimming over with the haunting and the harrowing - unflinchingly profound pain and anguished, unimaginable grief: "Nothing really matters when the one you love has gone."
There is a lot of imagery flying at you here. You feel like you are inside a very painful place - inside the head of Nick Cave (and indeed the head of his wife, Susie Bick). Some of the lines are heartbreaking, even cruel, to have to hear:
"Your little blue-eyed boy."
"I knew the world would stop spinning now since you've been gone."
"I'm begging you to please come home now - with my voice, I am calling you."
"You're a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don't you see?"
"I call out, right across the sea," Cave sings on Jesus Alone, "but the echo comes back empty."
Distant Sky contains the line: "They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied."
"All the things we love, we lose," Nick sings on Anthrocene. On Rings of Saturn, he sings of a "black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet to smash all over everything".
As The Observer's Kitty Empire pointed out, "wracked and brooding meditations on loss" - as found here on Skeleton Tree - "aren't exactly new territory for Cave, one of the foremost explorers of the bleaker realms of human experience".
"Nothing happened in my childhood - no trauma or anything," Nick said in the aforementioned New York Times interview when asked about the origins of his artistic sensibility.
"I just had a genetic disposition toward things that were horrible."
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