Wednesday 16 October 2019

From Eric Clapton to Nick Cave - artists who have drawn on grief to create raw, beautiful songs

Nick Cave’s extraordinary new album pulses with the spirit of his teenage son who died four years ago, but he is far from being the only artist to write raw, beautiful songs about loss and grief

Oblique songs: Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is not an easy album, but one that will profoundly move the listener
Oblique songs: Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is not an easy album, but one that will profoundly move the listener
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was July 14, 2015 when Nick Cave's world fell in. That day, his 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell to his death off a cliff near the family home in Brighton in England. Cave asked that he and the boy's mother, former model Susie Bick, be allowed to grieve privately, but that proved impossible, especially when the inquest revealed that Arthur had taken LSD just before he died.

A year later, Cave released the haunting Skeleton Tree album - one that seemed to have come from straight from the black hole of sorrow, although Cave insisted that the songs had been written prior to the tragedy. There was no doubt, though, that his emotive delivery of the songs was influenced by the horror that had entered his life the previous summer.

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And now there's a new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Ghosteen, which was released with the minimum of fuss last weekend. It's an extraordinary album and one in which the spirit of Arthur Cave pulses through. It's impossible to listen to this raw, anguished and often bleak collection of songs and not feel as though they are providing a glimpse into hell.

How nightmarish it must be to lose a child? It goes against the natural order of things and yet it happens, all the time, and the parents have to somehow pick themselves up and continue with life, especially if they have other children.

And that's what Cave and Bick have had to do - in the public glare. We got a sense of their incalculable pain in the One More Time with Feeling documentary, and Cave has spoken eloquently about what they've experienced over the past couple of years. Remarkably, it appears as though the couple have been able to take a measure of solace from the outpouring of sympathy from strangers.

He even started an online forum, Red Hand Files - a nod to his song 'Red Right Hand' which was used as the theme tune to the BBC's Peaky Blinders - in which he invited members of the public to ask him anything, and many reached out and offered their sympathies for his devastating loss. And with the shackles off, he seemed grateful for the opportunity to unburden himself of his most painful thoughts.

Ghosteen album cover
Ghosteen album cover

It's surely true, too, that by writing oblique songs about Arthur's passing, Cave has been able to work through the complicated emotions swirling around his head. Some don't make for easy listening: 'Ghosteen Speaks' is so heartrending, you almost feel as though you have stumbled upon Cave's private diaries. This is not an easy album, one to put on in the background - but it's capable of doing what the best music can do: profoundly move the listener.

A double album, Cave has said the first half is for children and the second for parents. It's true that Ghosteen features songs in which the grief is writ large, but there's an undeniable sense of hope, too, especially on the second part. Cave has mentioned how he has come to a new understanding about the human condition, and the power of empathy, since Arthur's death, and that's apparent on this album. Even in times of despair, there are enough good people out there to lift our spirits.

Ghosteen has joined a select band of comparatively recent albums that have taken a deep dive into what it is to suffer the death of a loved one and how you might best cope with the aftermath.

Sufjan Steven's most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, from 2015, was inspired by his deceased mother - and her partner - and it made for a listening experience so intimate one almost felt as though he had recorded the songs for himself, as therapy, and not for public consumption.

‘Tears in Heaven’: Eric Clapton lost his four-year-old son Conor in 1991
‘Tears in Heaven’: Eric Clapton lost his four-year-old son Conor in 1991

The power of Carrie & Lowell rests with Stevens' decision not to deify his mother, or his background. They clearly had a somewhat testy relationship and his erratic childhood would be nobody's idea of perfect parenting. But the album evokes the special love between a son and his mother that can move even the hardest-hearted to tears.

That's especially the case on the album's most arresting track, 'Fourth of July', in which he imagines his mother communicating to him, in her own peculiar way, from her deathbed. It's a composition which confirms Stevens' place in the front row of American songwriters and reaffirms a rare empathy that has been apparent from earlier songs like 'Casimir Pulaski Day' and 'John Wayne Gacy, Jr'.

Phil Elverum may not be on music lovers' wavelengths in the way Cave and Stevens are, but under his Mount Eerie nom de plume he has fashioned some of the most remarkable music inspired by death in recent years.

His 2017 album, A Crow Looked at Me, was written in the weeks after the death of his wife, the Canadian cartoonist and musician Geneviève Castrée, from cancer. To compound the tragedy, the couple had a four-month-old child at the time of her death.

Robert Plant
Robert Plant

Elverum later said he could not make sense of her death but found comfort in writing songs about how he felt. The songs were recorded simply with an acoustic guitar and laptop in the room in which she had died. If they sound especially hushed, that might be because he sung the lyrics at night when his daughter was sleeping in the next room.

They are among the most direct and uncompromising songs you will ever hear. Some deal with Geneviève's cancer diagnosis and treatment, others hover on the fallout of her death and the little things that those left behind have to suffer, such as the letters addressed to the deceased that continue to arrive.

The album's final song, 'Crow', is addressed to his infant daughter and it's the sound of a father trying to do his best even though he feels lost at sea. You listen to the album and fervently hope you will never experience grief like it.

There is no shortage of songs that detail grief of the most painful kind, with Eric Clapton's Ivor Novello-winning 'Tears in Heaven' becoming something of a staple at the funerals of children. The background, for those not in the know, is the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, in 1991. In an especially horrific tragedy, the boy had fallen from the 53rd-floor window of a New York apartment.

Clapton said he was unable to write or function for months afterwards until accepting a commission to compose part of the soundtrack of the movie Rush, with Will Jennings (who would go on to co-write Celine Dion's gargantuan 'My Heart Will Go On').

'Tears in Heaven' was written for the film, although Jennings later said Clapton had confided in him that he wanted to write about his child.

"It is a little ambiguous," Clapton said at the time, "because it could be taken to be about Conor but it also is meant to be part of the film."

Clapton wasn't the only big-name English rock musician to lose a son at an early age. His 1960s contemporary Robert Plant lost his five-year-old boy, Karac, to a rare illness in 1977 while he was away on tour with Led Zeppelin.

Plant later wrote a song, 'All My Love', in his honour.

"I think it was just paying tribute to the joy that [Karac] gave us as a family and, in a crazy way, still does occasionally," he said on US television last year, adding: "I wrote another song about him called 'I Believe' which was on an album in 1993 [Fate of Nations] and every now and again, he turns up in songs for no other reason than I miss him a lot."

Plant has said that by writing about Karac, he has helped to preserve his legacy, but also made him aware of the cherished time they had together.

One hopes that Cave will have felt the same way when it came to writing about his own child. And although he may not have realised it when recording Ghosteen, these painfully raw but beautiful songs will likely help many who have experienced the deaths of those closest to them, now and well into the future.

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