Album Review: Skeleton Tree

Mini-Description: In my eighteenth album review, I take my best stare at Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' newest album, the heart-wrenching circumstance and context behind it, and how it makes the album better than any amount of words could possibly describe.

Best Songs: "Jesus Alone", "Skeleton Tree", "Distant Sky" ft. Elsa Torp, "I Need You", "Magneto", "Anthrocene", "Girl In Amber", "Rings Of Saturn"
Worst Songs: N/A


Yep...this is gonna be another one of those albums.

Over the last two days, I've taken the liberty of expanding my tastes even more by going into a group they call Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. And just judging off their work from The Good Son to Push The Sky Away...I think I have a new favorite artist. Never has quality seemed to have come so naturally to anyone until you add Nick Cave. Whether it be the more classical and heartfelt The Good Son, the intimate acoustics of Henry's Dream, the gleeful dark mayhem of Murder Ballads, or the quiet, impenetrable Push The Sky Away to name a few, Cave really is a master of every style he tries. All of the albums I just named are actually perfect, all receiving the previously rarely given 11/10 score from me, making Cave show as truly prolific at the music he makes.

And...then it happened. I didn't want to mention this at all, but I absolutely have to to talk about Skeleton Tree: Nick Cave's 15 year old son Arthur Cave was killed in an accident on a cliff where they lived. I can't imagine just how much pain Nick was in and is still, and even though his new album was already written, there wasn't any doubt in my mind that he was going to half-improvise and color the album in the way the event happened. It was stunning how he could end up doing that, and because of it I didn't want to review this for a while, this is too personal. But I had to hear this. What happened?

I heard a good fellow say that it's easier to talk around than about the album. For me, talking around it is impossible, it's that hard-pressed on the final drafting on the album, and...that's a little bit terrifying. The more I think about this album, the more I think of David Bowie's Blackstar.

Where this is most apparent is the vocals. Like David Bowie, Nick Cave's voice has taken many sharp turns in his career. In no two albums do he sound the same. He ranges from very soft-spoken croons (not as bad as you'd think), to smooth baritones, to the borderline sadistic cackles of post-rock, to just plain whispers. However, in all of these, he's kept such a characterizing charisma and gigantic presence to him that was completely undying and never gave in. At least, not until here. His voice has become the frailest and wisest it's ever been, and holding on to a shaky presence that ends up almost breaking at many points. And I would call it his best performance since Murder Ballads, maybe ever, but....everything here besides maybe I Need You are just spoken. It's easily his most human performance to date, and the instrumentation on this album easily complements that.

Now, if you were to even just glance at the production, you'd tell that not very much has changed since the blankfaced darkness of Push The Sky Away other than the sudden shift towards more electronic "grooves" (very sparingly used here), which Nick Cave has never used before. However, what does change is significant and changes the tone. Where the previous album was very oblique and intense in its distance, Skeleton Tree is a much more mournful and quiet album. If you were to just tell from the opener Jesus Alone, it'd be hard to tell, with the buzzing blocks of grayed-out guitar that intensify the broken minor chord (that almost reminds me of The Blacker The Berry by Kendrick Lamar) until the cushions of pianos and strings soothe the atmosphere, it would sound right at home with songs like Higgs Boson Blues.

Then we get Rings Of Saturn, a song with quite a bit of sparkle thanks to the pianos hidden under a soft twinkle of gleamy synth keys, it's really a beauty, until Girl In Amber takes that beauty and strips it down to the bones of piano and faded travel vocals, before Magneto bares it further as the thick shades of piano sprinkle the whole song, then we shift to Anthrocene, which notably has much more frantic drum beats, until they hide away letting the atmosphere show itself again, in a way that Radiohead's The King Of Limbs wished it could match. I Need You takes a much sorer direction, with the sizzling percussion offsetting the almost calm waves of synth and the return of the faded vocals, and Distant Sky where the grief shifts into the organs where Elsa Torp's voice flutters with real soul and emotion, almost hinting at a brighter optimism, that is until the strings come through and...well.

Now we need to get to lyrics and themes. I did once make a conspiracy theory that out of context this album was almost a younger brother album to Blackstar, but in all canonicity, there's no getting behind the concept this album was improvised around. Right from the first song, Jesus Alone, he describes the ordeal in detail almost too vivid, in a narrative describing situations that Nick would rather his son be in, rather than death. It sounds petty and cowardly, but it's the most human thing you could think of when this may happen. That's before going to Rings Of Saturn, where he's at the mercy of a spider-like creature whose existence he very much understands, but knowing that something is wrong inside: that spider's web, the rings of Saturn, are a representation of what Christians would interpret as death.

Then the web's desolateness is revealed in Girl In Amber, where Nick Cave whispers that now, both the song and the world that have gone on for twenty-two years have stopped. The outside world will stop for Cave, but everything continues to go on, as Cave is trapped in his isolation. That's before Magneto, where the trauma has gone to Cave, on the verge, and shows him with beyond anger at the public who now pity him as a smaller figure, but has a hidden desire to be just like those people.

Anthrocene plays as an aftermath, showing Cave in the bigger world, vulnerable, almost camouflaged in his town of mundanity and tripping over, knowing that his pain must reveal itself at one point. That and I Need You, in its almost brutal self-truth that he's now apathetic and numb to the world now that he has lost the one he loves and the one he needs and misses, that although he will always remember his son, and that he will exist with him, he's gone.

Gone forever.

But then it starts to take a brighter turn on Distant Sky, where he stands up to his pain and is ready to try and move on, with Elsa Torp almost representing death itself, and telling us that Nick Cave can't dwell on it forever, the sky was not to let him see his son rise to the distant sky and into the heavens.

All the questions get answered with the title track, with the mellow organs emphasizing the breezing pianos and the gentle acoustic strums joining with very minimal drums, as he sits down on a Sunday morning with a TV that only sends him jittery feedback now, as he calls out that he paid the price for having love. But as he says in the final lines, it's alright. He'll live. It's catharsis to a point, which while I do congratulate Nick Cave for giving us, I think he needed it more.

I don't like promoting music in the actual sense of the term. I like critiquing it, dissecting and analyzing it. And even with the circumstances, I still have to be objective, same with what I had to clarify with Blackstar. But despite the fact that this is, emotionally, running with Blackstar as the most difficult album of 2016 that I can't recommend to anyone that hasn't known Nick Cave before, and despite this maybe being too real and raw to ever be released, there's a place for acknowledging when something pulls off its goal with perfection. For me, this is the second 11/10 of the year, behind, again, Blackstar. Both dealing with inner demons, death, and ending with the unexpected emotion of content.


This was a powerful. While Bowie, was doing his from a first person pre death persepctive, I found it even darker from a third person post death persepctive. A 10/10 definitely. - ProPanda


Also Godspeed You! Black Emperor's F#A#Infinity and Kraftwerk's Die Mensch-Machine are in there as well. - visitor

This is a really powerful album, and I honestly loved it. Definitely in my top 100. - SwagFlicks

Top 5 for 2016, if I remember. - WonkeyDude98

I liked this review, but I'm gonna stick with keeping my skeletons in the strip club under my carpet for now. - Skullkid755

2 CHAAYYYNZ! - WonkeyDude98

Well, I should check this out - Martinglez

YES. - WonkeyDude98

Nice review. - visitor

This album is sooo good. My personal favorite song is actually Rings of Saturn - Mcgillacuddy

Traditionally, Rings of Saturn is my "least" favorite song from the album, but then again, when every single song here stands a shot at the best I've ever heard in my life, they're all the best, really. - WonkeyDude98