Although the songs on Skeleton Tree were mostly written before the tragic accidental death of Cave’s teenage son Arthur, they were recorded in the aftermath, and, as anyone who sees the accompanying Once More With Feeling film (see clip below) documenting the process, it’s hard not to sense the way it impacted on the mood and, perhaps, violinist Warren Ellis’ ominous, brooding and sparse arrangements.
While events may bring added resonance, the themes on the band’s sixteenth studio album have been Cave staples since they began, dealing with death, loss, grief and religion couched in a musical meld of noir and Biblical atmospherics, indeed, when Cave recites the lyrics, as he does on several tracks here, most effectively album opener, Jesus Alone, it’s a bit like Leonard Cohen as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The song in question finds Cave, in the persona of the gatekeeper to purgatory, calling out to newly arrived souls (“a young man waking covered in blood that is not yours…a drug addict lying on your back in a Tijuana hotel room….an African doctor harvesting tear ducts”), underscoring that death draws no distinctions, while the image of calling out resurfaces in the closing, title track, which, even if interpreted as getting no answer from God, ends on a note of acceptance and that “it’s all right now.”
Between times, darkness hangs heavy, even when songs have an edge of hope and celebration, as on the hauntingly lovely Lou Reed-like Rings of Saturn as he sings of someone finding their destined moment, “This is what she does, and this is what she’s born to be,” ending on her dangling “like a child’s dream from the ring of Saturn.” Likewise, the organ-backed Distant Sky balances the finality (“Call the gasman. Cut the power off”) and disillusion (“They told us our dreams would outlive us. They told us our gods would outlive us. But they lied”) of Cave’s verses with the note of hope in the chorus (“We can set out for the distant skies. Watch the sun, Watch it rising In your eyes”) sung in soothing voice of Danish soprano Else Torp.
There are many disquieting moments, most strikingly so on the sparse spoken Magneto where, adopting a female persona, Cave recalls “the umbilicus was a faucet that fountained rabid blood, and I spun on my wheel like a laboratory rat” and “My blood was full of gags and other people’s diseases, And my monstrous little memory had swallowed me whole. Oh, it was the year I officially became the Bride of Jesus.” There is love and laughter and “stars are splashed across the ceiling,” but equally “the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming. I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues” as the love and laughter become the mocking of “the hyena’s hymns.”
The image of the supermarket resurfaces on I Need You, a shimmering synth drone ballad that again swings between emotional polarities, from “When you’re feeling like a lover, nothing really matters anymore” to “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”, within the space of a heartbeat, ending on a despairing repeated litany of “nothing” and “I need you.”
Of the two remaining numbers, the piano-backed fragility of Girl In Amber (which references 1984, the year of the band’s debut album) with its sigh of female backing vocals deals with grief and the way it can become a prison (“Some go on, some stay behind, some never move at all”) is steeped in nihilism and despair (“I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone. I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world in a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth. Well, I don’t think that anymore”) embodied in the line “the phone it rings no more” where consolation can simply be too painful as he repeats “Don’t touch me” as the song ebbs away.
Then, with its skittering percussion and drone piano there is Anthrocene, the title a reference to the environmental notion that the planet has entered the Anthrocene or Athropocene Age wherein humans have opened their relationship with Nature (“there’s a dark force that shifts at the edge of the trees”), the song essentially about loss (“the things we love, we lose”) and change and, perhaps, a shift from God to Gaea (“There are powers at play more forceful than we. Come over here and sit down and say a short prayer. A prayer to the air! To the air that we breathe!”) and the need to find something in which to believe (“I heard you’ve been out looking for something to love. Close your eyes, little world, and brace yourself”). Ultimately, the album seems to suggest that, while death, grief, and loss overwhelm and cause us to despair, there may yet be green leaves sprouting on the skeleton tree.
Skeleton Tree is out now.