It was a mid-September night. A friend was waiting for me. The weather in Rome was still quite warm despite some rain. I jumped out of the bus and decided to continue on foot. I put my earphones on and pressed play. I knew it was not the best time to do this. My friend was waiting. I was supposed to reach him very quickly and not to waste time following my train of thoughts. Anyway, I listened for the very first time to the new album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Skeleton tree.
Just three or four notes were enough for my reckless soul. It was a strange time for me. Tears were about to fall from my eyes. Simply staggering. Every long-hidden emotion was surging from stomach to eyes. Fear, empathy, desire, struggle, relief & Co. were spinning around me. I stopped to sit on a bench for a while, oblivious to the drizzle and thought: WOW. This man (Nick Cave, of course) can actually make a piece of poetry from everything he experiences, whether it is good or bad, as his entire discography confirms.
I was conscious of the album’s bitter taste before listening to it. Many reviews had warned me in advance. Nevertheless, sometimes my subconscious wants to sabotage me. I mean, for my own sake. By now, I am accustomed to this game. It always goes more or less the same. First, a wide range of emotions shakes me abruptly (oh no!). While listening, I feel dazed and broken (argh!). Later, something invisible puts the pieces of me back together (phew!). With Nick Cave’s work, this has happened to me so many times.
Now that I’ve awoken your curiosity, you’re probably guessing what is beyond this terrific Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ project. Well, Skeleton tree is not only an album of loss and mourning but also of therapy. It is anything but pathetic or predictable and goes hand by hand with the touching documentary One more time with feeling, directed by Andrew Dominick, in which Cave plays himself.
Both the album and the film tell the story of trauma and the ways in which a human being can get over it, even if this seems inconceivable. However, while survival is possible, it is also true that a major shock can change people profoundly, regardless of their will. In the documentary, the spectator often hears the broken narrating voice of Cave in background. The dim light invades the scene and the music fills the space. This cinematographic strategy provides a sense of constant tension. It can be observed simply by taking a glance at the trailer. Here Cave articulates: “But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic [strings] that you just change?” Indeed, the movie’s development hinges on this point.
The dramatic event in question is the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, who accidentally fell from a cliff near Brighton in July 2015. The curious fact is that Nick and the Bad Seeds were working on Skeleton tree before the incident, but, formally, the songs were completed and recorded after. It seems inevitable that some kind of premonition can be found in the lyrics. They are pinned around images of falling and collapse, as testified in the very first line of the opening song, Jesus Alone, beginning with “You fell from the sky / crash landed in a field”. Anyway, it would be a mistake to make too much of the timing of the work, also because there is no precise break between before and after. Rather, it is worth considering the product as perfectly blended by itself.
As for the differences between album and movie, the former has to be taken as a finite, two-dimensional musical product. The latter, with its 3D technology and black and white style, has a third dimension concerning visual depth. In addition, it explains better the process beyond the elaboration not only of the album but also of the trauma.
With his trembling and warm voice, Cave attempts to clarify the difficulties he faced throughout the recording. On the one hand, there is the problem of the trauma. On the other hand, there is the struggle of creation. How can an artist still be an artist after all this pain? What is after? This effort rises to the surface especially in gestures. The director’s eye is skillful in representing them. The framings capture musicians’ hands meaningfully catching the wind, then their feet tapping the ground. Behind these gestures, there is also an idea of constant rhythm. A background fluidity collides with the tragic contents. Death bumps into music and nothing remains but life and beauty.
By bringing up a thorny issue such as his son’s loss, Cave is not searching for compassion. It might appear to be a lack of discretion or decency. But, actually, there is no request for pity. All the spectators see is a human being in front of the camera. This is where the magic happens. Cave makes the audience forget about his artistic identity, because he has a human voice surrounding the space, a human body occupying the stage, a human range of emotions shaping the plot. Then, suddenly, people recognize something more. Beyond this human being, there is a well-rounded artist and this is where the poetry begins. Trauma has brought creation and creation has brought an incredible, melancholic and endearing beauty. Certainly, it is not a happy performance but it is definitely not ugly.
The chorus and facial expressions of the actors/real characters also give vibrancy to feelings. It is like being at the theatre, except for the fact that this is no fiction. The reality beyond the screen makes the performance even more moving and contemporary. Thinking about the relationship between this product and classical theatre, one can assume that the ancient Greeks weren’t wrong when they spoke about identification and catharsis in tragedy.
This astonishing piece of art makes the audience reflect on their everyday losses, both the big ones and the little ones. As for myself, I found that my greatest silent feelings find voice in almost every aspect of these songs. I can actually perceive the tension rising. Believe it or not, I remain trapped, lumbering and slumbering as in Girl in Amber, or holding hands in the supermarket in a red dress (I Need You).
These lyrics are poetry born out of loss. One can simply read them without music and still feel their inner rhythm.
The movie, as I said before, is in black and white. Underneath these tough blues there is a white light. It may be the light of hope. An unexpected relief, especially as in the last two tracks, Distant sky and Skeleton tree. It is as if the author wanted to represent life as always full of possibilities. All things considered, even trauma can create poetry. This is the final message that Cave gives: “I called out, I called out / That nothing is for free / And it’s all right now” (Skeleton tree).
Summing up, the two main ideas highlighted are trauma and creation. Some people’s genius simply works in this way. This is also true of Australian musician, composer, singer, writer, screenwriter and actor Nick Cave. There is nothing more left to say, but if your curiosity is still not sated, go and find this album. It is worth it.
To conclude, there is a basic rule that regulates our artistic preferences. We mainly follow artists who inspire us because their means of expression reach our soul immediately. The multifaceted Nick Cave is for me one of those artists. I like him because I perceive his work as very close to my repertoire of “emotions recollected in tranquillity”. While listening to him, watching his videos, or reading his texts, I experience a proper identification. “That is all”. Taking the liberty to bring Keats into my conclusion: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” (Ode on a Grecian Urn).