In January of this year, David Bowie’s final album Blackstar saw the subject of his own death confronted head-on and eerily prognosticated his end. Then in April, London-based singer-songwriter Thomas Cohen - widow of Peaches Geldof - released his post-S.C.U.M debut solo record, Bloom Forever. He musically confronted the death of his wife with heart-wrenching songs that went into detail as graphic as discovering her 'stone cold' body. So, for Nick Cave, whose teenage son Arthur died tragically in an accident last year, and his ever-present backing band The Bad Seeds, the bar is set pretty high for albums that tackle the taboo subject of human mortality.
But on his sixteenth album Nick Cave rises to the occasion, and from the immense pain and grief arises a transformative and evocative masterpiece. Let's not beat about the bush here - in the case of Skeleton Tree, the M-word is a formality, not a provocative opinion. For even though Cave only explicitly references his son's death in fragments, the overwhelming feelings of spiritual torture are prevalent throughout the whole 40 minutes. Skeleton Tree is more than an album about the death of a relative - it's a perdurable example of human emotion at its most devastating.
On I Need You, the macho raconteur Cave of old is gone. The ‘real Nick Cave' sings a repeated motif of "nothing really matters" in a state that is constantly on the verge of tears. "The urge to kill someone was overwhelming," he says, his surly mourning voice making no attempt to sing at all, no effort to conventionally at least. Nick Cave's career has seen him tell so many stories with a two figure death count, but that's turned on its head with Skeleton Tree's tender tackling of mortality.
Although there are shreds of hope on the closer Skeleton Tree, with its final repetition of "and it's alright now", the general mood of this album lingers around mourning and despair. For Cave - one of the great artists - the inception of this album feels like a necessary stage of the grieving process. Cave's heart has almost certainly been broken over the last 15 months. Whe he sings "they told us our dreams would outlive us... but they lied" on album highlight Distant Sky, he can't help but break your heart too.
(Words: Cal Cashin)