Death and grief and loss are some of the most guttural and difficult themes a songwriter can cover. These feelings are perhaps even harder to convey when they relate to the loss of your own son. But on Skeleton Tree it’s exactly this tragic situation, which Nick Cave faces head on. On the 14th of July 2015 Nick’s son Arthur fell to his death at the Ovingdean gap in Brighton, Skeleton Tree is very much the emotional document of a man coming to terms with the aftermath of this event. The portrayal of such emotions has relatively little comparison in the world of music aside from Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven (also about his son falling to his death) but whereas Clapton finds redemption in the concept of life after death Cave finds none. Skeleton Tree is a brutal, difficult and brilliant listen.
Cave has always possessed an ability to deal with the dark and gothic but the added self-reflection on Skeleton Tree makes the album feel darker than anything that he has composed before. Cave’s words are as poetic as ever and the imagery he casts out on to the listener is, at times, given the death of his son is haunting. From lines describing falling to earth to hearing voices in supermarket queues, this is a portrait of grief and the beguiling way in which Cave describes it leaves the listener emotionally wrought for some time after the music has stopped. This is not however to say Skeleton Tree is unlistenable rather that it is emotionally draining and challenging, but then all too often brilliant music is.
The instrumentation on Skeleton Tree is sparse veering towards the electronic and littered with strings, synth and distorted bass and sound effects. It will be for some Cave fans a difficult listen in which a cult hero has taken a very experimental path. However, the arrangements on Skeleton Tree perfectly suit the subject matter of the album and force the listener into the protagonist’s claustrophobic and distressed world. There are influences of Bon Iver and James Blake throughout but Cave has really made any influences he has taken entirely his own.
Very few artists are ever faced with having to plumb the depths of human emotion in a way in which Cave has here. This decade perhaps only Kanye West on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy written after his mother’s death and that of his hero Michael Jackson has come close. Though in its despair Skeleton Tree shares much more thematically with Johnny Cash’s incredible American Recordings series, in which the country singer faced up to his own mortality and the loss of June Carter (his wife). For this album to be mentioned in the same vein as Cash’s album series and West’s album (which many critics see as being the best of the decade so far) really is testament to just how incredible Skeleton Tree is.
Skeleton Tree is an exceptionally difficult and challenging listen but is a very real document of grief and emotional distress if you can bear to stick with the dark subject matter here (and you should) you will discover that Nick Cave may well have recorded not just the best album of 2016 but one of the best, most brutal and brilliant albums of the last ten years. Very special indeed.