A powerful look at grief by one of our finest artists

Niall McCann


Niall McCann

A powerful look at grief by one of our finest artists

Tragedy and art are often intertwined, it makes sense that an artist would use their art in order to process and deal with some event in their personal life and as is often the case an artist’s personal life and their work are interlinked to the point when one fails to see the join anymore and the two things become inseparable and one and the same.

One needs only look to the artistic and commercial success of the last records of David Bowie, Blackstar and A New Day, who managed to turn his very death into an artistic triumph in a way that was entirely fitting to his life’s work as an artist always in complete control.

An artist who has always used their work as a retreat or extension of self, creating a place to deal with the foibles of living, is Nick Cave. Indeed, he himself has stated numerous times in interviews that he turned to music and the written word as a way of coming to terms with the death of his father when he was 19 years old, at that time he discovered “that words became like a poultice to my pain.”

A number of years ago, working with Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Cave made the film 20,000 Days on Earth, which depicts a fictitious 24-hour period in the life of the Australian musician, author, screenwriter, composer and actor, prior to and during the recording of his 2013 album Push the Sky Away.

The film was a wonderful exploration of the creative process and an insight into an artistic life spent creating.

It also gave audiences a glimpse into the private world of Cave, his musical collaborators such as Warren Ellis and his family, Suzie and their two twin boys.

In one scene in the film, Cave is lying on his couch at home with his sons, Arthur and Earl, they are watching the film Scarface together and it is a moment like one would expect to find with any close family, at once touching and intimate.

The film that accompanies the new album from Cave and his band the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree, arrives with another accompanying film, One More Time with Feeling, this time directed by Andrew Dominick (Chopper, The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, Killing Them Softly.).

The film was shot during studio sessions not long after the death of Nick Cave and his wife Susie's son Arthur in a tragic accident in 2015.

I first heard the new record while watching this film, and so powerful is the connection between the two works that they've become rather inseparable in my mind. I'm not convinced either, as has been reported in some places, that making the film was merely an interesting way of not speaking to the press around the album release, Cave is too much of a control freak to not have planned meticulously every step of the way, like all great artists – everything is intentional here.

This is a record as much about professionalism as it is about some search for redemption, it’s a work about using art to find a way to live again.

Like all of us, who have to return to work after some personal calamity or bereavement, Cave too must return to work, and here, with both the film and the new album, we have the results of that work and it may be remembered as the defining output of this wonderful musician.

Here Cave as always has his right hand man Warren Ellis with him and the music on the record is both the logical and emotional continuation and development of the sound on the bands 2013 Push the Sky Away.

Here the tracks are more like soundscapes than anything else and from the very first song, Jesus Alone to the title track Skeleton Tree, we are plunged into a painful world of grief, loss and ultimately some form of redemption or even hope, though it is a hard slog to find that sliver of light, it is a sliver, which Cave, like us, needs in order to find his way back to the land of the living, if that is even possible after such a cataclysmic event as the loss of a child.

The knowing dark blues that has characterised much of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' music up to now is gone, and Skeleton Tree is as sparse and experimental as they've ever been.

Here, they haunt their former selves, at once familiar yet somehow utterly removed.

Skeleton Tree's minimal production and less polished sound incorporates elements of alternative rock, electronica and ambient music and features extensive use of synthesisers, drum machines and loops that were previously explored on Push the Sky Away.

Several songs on the album utilise avant-garde techniques, including the use of dissonant musical elements and non-standard song structures.

Cave's allegorical and often-improvised lyrics are less narrative and character-based than on previous Bad Seeds' albums as he explores the empty desolation of his grief and loss.

After a career of collaboration with a variety of wonderful talents like Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, Cave really has found his perfect foil in Ellis, and the sometime Dirty Three leader has really come into his own on the last few Bad Seed records, the music on display here is as stark, unsettling and desperate as the words and vocals it encases like a shroud.

They also make a great double team and even in the film there are moments of genuine humour between the two men.

One of the most moving sequences in One More Time with Feeling comes when Cave is discussing the strange things that grief will do. "I must remember to be kind," he says in voiceover, sounding like a man who knows that it is true kindness that we can find hope once more. That is what Cave is offering us here, his gift to us.

Skeleton Tree has become a statement about grief, loss and the potential and failure of art, but in the brutal honesty and stark emotion at play here there is a promise here to anyone listening that when loss and grief of losing a loved one visits us all, as it will, we are told here just how impossible and overpowering that grief will be.

Rating: 5/5