Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Poet: Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree

I have to be in the right mood to listen to Nick Cave. When I’m not, I lose my focus and my attention span turns to mush –  and to appreciate his music requires your full attention. But when my mood is right, listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds is highly rewarding. The band’s new album, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd), recorded during the time Cave’s son Arthur fell off a cliff in July 2015, is mournful and enlightening at the same time. (Skeleton Tree is Nick Cave’s 16th studio release.) Cave turns 59 tomorrow and he seems to be going through life with a degree of cautious optimism on this record rather than wallowing in a swamp of emotion. He’s not trying to deny his feelings of sadness and despair, either.

What we experience on Skeleton Tree is Cave’s deep pain mixed with peaceful introspection. On the eight songs that make up the album, Cave is openly exploring his values with lyrics that are eloquent, honest and passionate. The record sounds more like an arranged a series of poems set to music than to a conventional collection of songs. He often uses metaphor and references only a skilled fan of his work would recognize. Admittedly I’m not that well versed in his work to cross-reference his lyrics to past exploits, but I was struck by Cave’s free expression on Skeleton Tree, much like the openness Joni Mitchell put on display on Blue (Reprise) back in 1971. As she told Cameron Crowe in the July 26, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Cave is similarly revealing his doubts about faith, God and his place in the universe in a “defenseless” manner.

This is particularly so on the song “Distant Sky” featuring a duet with Danish soprano, Else Torp. It’s a hymn of remembrance and reverence gently supported by violin and cello, arranged by Warren Ellis. (Ellis works his magic on the whole record) But rather than fade gracefully, the song ends much like an unanswered question, à la Philip Glass. It’s a beautiful track that feels hopeful in temperament as Cave sings, “we can set out for the distant skies and watch the sun arising in your eye.” Torp’s heavenly response is angelic without being overtly divine. It’s almost too reverential. But Cave balances his spiritual needs on the album with a certain amount of philosophical pragmatism as he sings (in "Girl in Amber"), “if you wanna breathe, then let the world turn.”

On the song “Anthrocene” we hear a hurried texture to the soundtrack of Cave’s life and his place in the greater geological and anthropological world that is in constant flux, “It’s a long way back and I’m begging you to come home now, come home now” as if he’s scrapping away at his deep emotions like an archeological excavation site.

“I Need You” was the first song recorded after the death of Cave’s son and is the most emotional of the whole album. In it, Cave bears his pain with grace and sincerity, “I will miss you when you’re gone. I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever. Cause nothing really matters. I thought I knew better, so much better.”

The album closes with the cathartic title track. Cave sings as a comforting soul “and it’s... all” fading out gently as if we’re passing into a new stage of existence with more love, longing and loss before us.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

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