It’s taken a long time for me to understand that Cave is unearthing something elemental here, a truth that eclipses the individual, brought to bear by billions of years of life on Earth. The Buddhists say life is suffering. Maybe. Anyone with sense can see that it’s not something so transient and trivial as ‘happiness’. The one unifying constant is our limitation in the face of sheer infinity. We are defined – given form, vitality and meaning – by our limitations, by our finitude and vulnerability. I think this is why, when we encounter a work of art that confronts mortality with such terrifying clarity and nakedness as this, the experience threatens to tear us right from our existential moorings and carry us on primordial tides towards a profound emotional dissonance. We are confronted with the bones of things, and it is not for the faint of heart.
In July 2015, Cave’s 15 year-old son Arthur died after falling from a chalk cliff near Brighton. There is debate as to what extent this loss informs Skeleton Tree. The recordings for the album were mostly done by this time, leaving listeners without that perversely satisfying explanation for what they’re hearing. As with ‘The Road’, a story about a man and his son carrying the fire through an unspeakable wasteland (the adaptation of which was scored by Cave), many critics poke around in the dark for topical allusion and allegory but miss the transcendent meaning that is surely more real than any rational equation.
‘Jesus Alone’ opens; “you fell from the sky / crash-landed in a field near the river Adur”. This line was written before young Arthur’s death. What is to be made of that? How can anyone say that it doesn’t mean anything? The instrumentation is abrasive and oppressive, and over these waves of noise Cave calls, with his voice, for you . . .
Already adrift in a deep ocean of metaphysical chaos, Cave asks only that you stop thrashing against the tide for a brief space of time, stay with him and just float, glassy-eyed on the hyaline sea. ‘Girl in Amber’ is at root a simple piano piece, displaced into dreadful beauty by atmospheric overdubs and backing lament. These vocals appear sporadically throughout the album and serve as emotional anchor to Cave’s sprawling poetics. Acoustic guitar emerges on occasion, but doesn’t make much sense; chords go nowhere, partially played and then killed before their time. No rhyme, no reason.
‘Anthrocene’ is a white squall out of the sombre calm, a panic attack which shortly gives way to the album’s masterpiece ‘I Need You’. Cave unravels over the time signature, as one is bound to in heartfelt confession. No sound encapsulates romantic yearning so fully as deep, throbbing synth that coats the ears. It’s an artificial sound and yet so achingly human and intimate, just one of those inexplicable anachronisms of being that this album so wisely codifies. Nick Cave has bottled lightning with these songs.
I am profoundly grateful to have never suffered such a loss as Nick Cave, but there is no escaping it. It’s enfolded in that single unifying constant of humanity along with everything else, inextricable from life’s joys. It is the price we pay for love. More than that, it is the price we pay for life, and Skeleton Tree stands lonely testament:
I called out, I called out
Right across the sea,
I called out, I called out,
That nothing is for free
And it’s alright now. . .
-By Alex Boyd