When real, life-changing tragedy strikes a master of dark musical arts, masterpieces can be made: Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs For Drella. Bowie’s Blackstar. Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell. The Bad Seeds’ sixteenth album, Skeleton Tree.
Released the day after Nick Cave’s documentary One More Time With Feeling, which skirts around the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur last July until its heart-rending closing reel, the album tackles Cave’s torment head-on. ‘You fell from the sky and crash-landed in a field near the river Ovingdean,’ he intones in the first line of ominous opener Jesus Alone. And then, to try to make sense of such senseless loss, he widens his frame to take in ‘a drug addict… in a Tijuana hotel room’, ‘an African doctor harvesting tear ducts’ and other disparate characters, his son becoming part of a cosmic human whole.
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Although recording began in 2014, the glowering semi-electronic atmospheres of Skeleton Tree are understandably haunted by last summer’s tragedy. Over sombre, unsettling experimental soundscapes akin to a mortuary Radiohead, Cave reels through sprawling stream-of-consciousness imagery on the glitch gospels Rings Of Saturn and Anthrocene as though trying to babble away his grief.
When his speaking-in-tongues quasi-melodies light upon a line of pained clarity – ‘I knew the world it would stop spinning now, since you’ve been gone,’ he croaks on the fragile Girl In Amber – it hits like a claw hammer. But by Distant Sky and the final title track the album coheres into conventional Cave hymnals; his dazed, bewildered sadness patched back into more familiar shapes. Hints of catharsis from these tangled, bony branches.