Earlier this year Sun Kil Moon and Jesu collaborated on an album that I have almost entirely forgotten about at this point. The one song that still sticks with me from that record, and remains one of the better songs of 2016 is the song “Exodus,” named after Mike Tyson’s late daughter. The song dived into the topic of the suffering of parents who lose their children, a topic that is incredibly difficult to even fathom, especially as someone who in many ways could be seen as a child still myself.
I bring this song up as it begins with singer Mark Kozelek reflecting on the day he heard about the unspeakable tragedy that Nick Cave had to live through during the summer of 2015. For those unaware, Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after an accident by the cliffs in Brighton.
Even as someone who has not listened to nearly enough of Nick Cave’s music, I was still aware of how dark and tragic many of his stories can be. However, after listening to this album a couple times, I knew something was different here. While I am used to feeling these heavy emotions with his material, he has never sounded the way he does on Skeleton Tree. Even after hearing that a large portion of this record was written prior to that tragedy, it is impossible to separate this art from its creator and the circumstances surrounding his misfortunes. The instrumentation is quieted, the production is sparse and Cave is clearly not giving a performance but instead solely using his pain to drive his delivery which occasionally feels like spoken word poetry rather than a song.
From the opener, “Jesus Alone” there is an image of someone falling from the sky, into a field, which sounds too real to simply be a coincidence. Cave proclaims in the chorus “with my voice, I am calling you,” a possible plea to his son, or maybe just a call to God himself, seeing as the song is full of religious imagery. The track effectively indicates to the listener what they should expect with the rest of this record with its depressed, hopeless tone and droning sound.
“Girl in Amber” was the first song on this album that struck an emotional chord with me in a way that virtually no other songs has this year. The lyrics depict the titular girl, likely Cave’s wife, who has become so grief-stricken that her world no longer spins and she is stuck, like a fly in amber, in this lonely and unimaginable place. Cave sings that not only has the world stopped spinning but that maybe his musical career has ended now as well. The repeated final lines “don’t touch me” are chilling as we get a sense of the isolation Cave must be craving during this time.
This feeling of hostility towards the outside world is made present again on the following track “Magneto,” where Cave details an experience he had at a supermarket where a stranger gave him their condolences. He describes wanting to kill this person, possibly due to his jealousy that he could not feel happy again like this person wishing him empty platitudes.
The final three songs on this project are the ones that for me resonated the most. Starting with the synth-driven “I Need You,” this is the most direct Cave gets when reflecting on his own feelings of grief. His lyrics reflect on how he knows his son is gone, will not be coming back, and all Cave wants is a piece of him to hold onto. You can hear every bit of sorrow in Cave’s vocals and there is no doubt that these words are coming from the deepest parts of this man’s soul. This is without a doubt the most emotional song of the year and easily one of the best too. This is the sound of a man hitting his lowest point and it is not something to be listened to around people, it will surely make most cry, especially given the context.
The tone lightens up slightly on the duet “Distant Sky,” a song that shows a glimmer of catharsis as Cave and his wife decide to leave the empty world they have been living in and watch the sun rise. Else Torp delivers a couple beautiful verses here, almost coming across as the sun that Nick Cave is watching rise. Cave is still not in a perfect place, stating that while others said our gods and dreams would outlive us, they were wrong, showing that he is still pained over outliving his child.
The titular closing track, the production is brighter and the imagery of a Sunday morning where things seem to be alright in the world. Cave realizes his love of his son has come at a price and “nothing is for free” but for now things seem to be alright as he repeats on the final lines. The title is also repeated, possibly alluding to a symbol of both death and beauty, while it is tragic that his son is dead, and he will never be with Cave again, he was still able to create a beautiful tribute to him with this Skeleton Tree.
While this is a record I can personally admit to saying I love, it is hard to necessarily recommend it to most people. It is one of the most raw and heartbreaking pieces of music ever created and while haunting beautiful, will be overwhelmingly tragic for many. And while it is hard to really grade such an incredible product of someone’s broken soul I can safely say that this album deserves the rating I am giving it and all of the praise it has been receiving from fans and critics.
Best Songs: Jesus Alone, Rings of Saturn, Girl in Amber, Magneto, Anthrocene, I Need You, Distant Sky, Skeleton Tree
Worst Song: N/A