In the first season of Alan Ball’s still terrific Six Feet Under, Brenda Chenowith, one of the show’s main characters, points out a crucial omission from our language of loss: “If you lose a spouse, you’re called a widow, or a widower. If you’re a child and you lose your parents, then you’re an orphan. But what’s the word to describe a parent who loses a child? I guess that’s just too fucking awful to even have a name.” And she’s largely correct, save for the Sanskrit word “Vilomah” whose meaning “against a natural order” sort of affirms her quote.
Throughout Skeleton Tree, the sparse sixteenth studio album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Cave emotionally wrestles with defining such devastation. In July 2015, his 15-year-old son died after falling from a cliff in Brighton, England near where the band had begun to wrap sessions for Skeleton Tree. And so, while the writing of the record was largely complete, it is almost impossible to hear Cave bellow “You fell from the sky Crash landed in a field Near the river Adur,” in the wheezing opener “Jesus Alone,” and not think of his personal tragedy. Irrespective of a timeline of events, a specter of loss haunts this entire album.
And “haunting” is quite honestly the only descriptor that even feels close to correct for Skeleton Tree. Skronking guitar riffs and rumbling bass lines are nowhere to be found here. Warren Ellis’ often elegiac strings are conspicuously for stretches as well. Nick Cave’s piano keys punctuate tracks rather than define them. Synthesizers listlessly wind down vacant desert roads. For Push the Sky Away, the group’s prior record and previous contender for sparsest and ghostliest, Stereogum’s Dan Lawrence said it’s “a tremulous album, a candle near an open window always just on the verge of winking out.” With Skeleton Tree, the candle is out and its light gray smoke is filling up the dark room Cave is sitting in alone. “I need you, need you, cause nothing really matters,” he cries in “I Need You.” His only “companion” is the dying ember of a fond memory that is still bright enough to burn his heart.
Over the brushed percussion of the title track Cave shouts across the sea, but the echoes of his voice go nowhere. Which harkens back to opener “Jesus Alone” when Cave calls out to God or country or whomever and doesn’t hear anyone answer. The prayers go up, though no blessings come down. And Cave is left to reckon that his son is merely “a distant memory” in the mind of an ambivalent creator, while he’s been left behind by that same creator to shuffle through a fog of grief.
If Skeleton Tree sounds dark and heavy and lonesome and emotionally taxing, it is. But there is great beauty to be found in it. Cave’s restrained dueting with Danish soprano Else Torp during the ambient “Distant Sky” helps kickstart the catharsis. There’s warmth to be found if you go looking for it. “Rings of Saturn,” with its soft electro shimmer recalling Majical Cloudz, is one of the loveliest tunes Cave’s put his name to in the past 10 years. And it’s one of the album’s sole examples of certainty. “This is the moment, this is exactly what she’s born to be” Cave declares. By the end she turns to him to ask “Are you still here?” as the song approaches its gentle denouement. Cave is still here. He’s given in to grief and loss, but he hasn’t given up.