Skeleton Tree – Death Becomes Us
Nick Cave’s memorial to grief and the permanence of death, Skeleton Tree, was the soundtrack to my morning commute on the Friday before September 11th, 2016. Cave suffered the loss of his 15-year-old son last year and much has been made of how this album captures the grief he felt (though apparently he wrote much of the content before the tragedy). Despite my dedication to Nick Cave, I somehow missed this news event entirely and I did not actually find it out until after my subway ride. What came through to me was that Nick Cave used to believe in a sort of glorified version of death and the afterlife, but now he sees death for what it really is: absence of life.
Cave begins the album with a roll call of lost souls, from the “young man covered in blood that is not [his]” to the drug addict lying on his back in a Tijuana hotel room to the African doctor harvesting tear ducts. “With my voice I am calling you,” he says to them all while also implicating us, whoever we are, listening, even as I was, on the subway going to work; he alchemically changes us so that we might become the right audience for this work. “Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam” this ain’t. It’s closer to: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
The opening single “Jesus Alone” feels like the natural extension of Cave’s last album Push the Sky Away and the continually minimalist trajectory the maximalist Cave has been on lately. “Rings of Saturn” unveils the next phase of Cave’s development. The words ramble out quickly with the hooky woo’s of a ghostly chorus and electro-cosmic echoes behind them. It’s just a lit bit hip-hop or meta-beat-poetry slam; it’s energized and entirely casual. “Girl in Amber” feels willfully trapped in its titular substance. With references to 1984 and 1990, Cave invites us into our own collective record and memory menageries. Meanwhile, “If you want to leave, don’t breathe” is Cave’s advice on suicide. The words now are jammed and flowing, out of rhythm enough to create a counter rhythm. The crying baby on my 6 train made his own loop to fit atop the layers of sound coming out of my headphones.
“Magneto” is a reminder that Nick Cave songs can be like horror movies starring Van Morrison. Morrison sang “The love that loves the love that loves the love that loves” on Astral Weeks and Cave sings, in similar cadence: “In love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you love.” Meanwhile, Cave says, “The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming,” as he waits in the supermarket queues. “One more time with feeling” is the refrain, and the name of a dark documentary about Nick Cave’s artistic reaction to his horrible loss.
In “Anthrocene,” the “animals pull the night around their shoulders” and the “flowers fall to their knees.” Loose and light drumming reminds us that rhythm can also be dissonant and that there is an actual drummer somewhere in the midst of all the electronic looping that forms most of the rhythmic soundtrack. “I Need You” provides further proof that Nick Cave goes to the supermarket like all the rest of us, and he finds some kind of love there, but nothing really matters when the one you love is gone. In “Distant Sky”: “They told us our dreams would outlive us. But they lied.”
This is about death –not the endlessness of it, as in Murder Ballads, nor the specters of Mermaids who pervaded Push the Sky Away, but the finality of it. The closing song “Skeleton Tree” tells us that there is something left indeed though the life is gone: Remains.
Those are the songs I heard on the subway. It was my second listen. The first was at 5:40am the same morning. I had woken up hoping Skeleton Tree had downloaded itself onto my phone. My two sons were sleeping in the next room and my wife was sleeping in our bed. I crept out on quiet tiptoes to the living room couch. I laid myself down again there and listened in the dark. If I had known then what this album was really about, what it came to be about while it was being made, what it means to people now as they hear it and read about it and think about their losses; if I had known 15 years ago how special the 9th of September, 2001 would be; if I had known… But I didn’t. So I closed my eyes and listened for the first time, falling back asleep.
RATING (1 to 5 whistles, 5 being the best): 4
Skeleton Tree accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish, but I won’t listen to it as often as Push the Sky Away or Dig Lazarus Dig.
Jim Knable is a playwright, singer-songwriter, and prose writer who has had his plays produced at MCC Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Soho Rep, and various other regional and university companies. His play Spain was included in Smith and Kraus’ Best Plays of 2008 anthology, published by Broadway Play Publishing, and a collection of three of his plays was just published by Samuel French as The Imaginary Plays: SPAIN/SALTIMBANQUES/GREEN MAN. He has written essays, reviews, short stories, and published part of his novel Sons of Dionysus in Frontier Psychiatrist, Newyork.com, and The Brooklyn Rail. His band The Randy Bandits released three albums that are available on iTunes. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and sons. His next projects include a Shaw adaptation to be staged at a kombucha factory in Brooklyn and a podcast of his latest play, The Curse of Atreus, to be produced by 12 Peers Theatre in Pittsburgh.