Skeleton Tree follows on from the melancholy themes of Push the Sky Away with a slow moving and reflective record, full of grief and reflection. The death last year of Nick Cave’s son last year surely hung over the making record.
In his last record Nick was marking a point in his life, and it was no coincidence that the movie 20,000 Days on Earth was released at around the same time and featured much of the music. In that film Nick Cave was the musing writer, the rock-star, the collaborator refulgent with the memories of people from his past. It was a reflective record, and my favourite track Higgs Boson Blues summed up all of it so well. It was a slow moving jam, which threw together references from popular culture in a grand milieu. The death of Martin Luther King Jr is mentioned alongside the genocide of the Native Americans and Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool. The point of the song (I think) is that scientists have found the higgs boson, the elusive God particle that makes the genesis of the universe knowable, and has made the pastiche of human affairs possible.
There is no Higgs Boson Blues equivalent in Skeleton Tree. Instead Nick Cave has stripped his music to the bone, with just his vocals and some dark tones and percussion behind him for some tracks. Cave as poet predominates. Loss, and death, and being left behind. But this does not make for a depressing listening experience. No, this is probably not the right album to play at a party. But when the party is over, the guests have left and you sit alone in the corpse of the night.
For me this record gets right what Pink Floyd’s Endless River got wrong. It is thoughtful, something to meditate on for a while, which is where Endless River went wrong. It was tonal, with echoes of the Pink Floyd sound, but like an overwrought good-bye. Frankly, that’s what it was because Pink Floyd is not making another one. I got to the end of that record waiting for it to begin, to really get underway. Perhaps the lack of vocals was the culprit, in any case it was a frustrating experience. I think they forgot the immortal lie that is critical to good music; that a moment can last forever, and that time is not so omnipotent, or perhaps they just didn’t care.
For example, David Bowie is as influential to people of my generation who grew up with our parents records — as he was to my parents. He was more productive in the last year of his life than he had been for a long time, and in dying just after releasing Blackstar he cheated death somewhat because he was living freshly through spotify, YouTube, Itunes, as well as the traditional LP. Another example is The Rolling Stones, who remain active after fifty years. They could have preemptively ‘called it’, knowing that there is only one destination to life, but instead they go on. Let them pry the guitar out of Kieth’s cold, dead hands.
Nick Cave is singing about loss, but it is loss for him rather than him being lost. The final track, Skeleton Tree, speaks of a Sunday morning, and the continuing passage of time with the repeated line: “And nothing is for free.” It ends with Cave singing three times, “And it’s alright now.” I don’t think I have to explain further. An outstanding record.
A Note on melancholy music:
Skeleton Tree is unsurprisingly an emotionally draining experience, therefore the ideal pressure valve to relieve all the build up sadness. I am one of those people that will play something morose when I am feeling down so I descend all the way — because I come up feeling better (and I’m a brooding sort of chap). Forcing a frown into a smile is basic emotional repression, which keeps one stunted in an emotional sense. So, allowing the feeling of existential sadness completely flood you can be a good thing. I find that the waters don’t drown me, they simply drain away slowly leaving me quiet and at peace. So, give it a shot.