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As I once heard him quip in concert: “This next one’s a morality tale… they’re all morality tales, really. It’s what I do.” But despite amassing a songbook that needs its own morgue, on their 16th album together, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds must contend with something that is not so easily depicted: the sound of mourning.
In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur—one of his twin sons with wife Susie Bick—died when he accidentally fell from a cliff near the family’s current home in Brighton, England. The writing and recording of Skeleton Tree had commenced before the tragic incident, but the album was completed in its aftermath, and its specter hangs over it like a black fog.
This is a record that exists in the headspace and guts of someone who’s endured an unspeakable, inconsolable trauma. And though the songs are not explicitly about Arthur they are uncannily about coming to terms with loss and the realization that things will never be the same again.
The skies, seas, and mermaids that previously dominated Cave’s thoughts are still very much present here. But on the opening “Jesus Alone,” he’s wading deeper into the chop, the safety of the shoreline fading further out of view as he gets swept up by pattering drum drifts, humming organs, and swelling orchestration.
The song was among the first Cave wrote for the record, yet its opening image—“You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur”—feels unbearably prescient.
It isn’t so much about the finality of death as the ambiguity of the afterlife: Cave’s orator welcomes a litany of souls into purgatory, but his stern proclamation—“With my voice, I am calling you”—makes it unclear whether they’ll be redeemed in heaven or damned to hell.
And yet even the relentless ache of “I Need You”—the closest Cave has come to actually crying on record—hardly prepares you for a pair of closing tracks that will reduce the most hardened hearts to puddles.
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