Music, like religion, can be an escape from the pain, confusion, or even drudgery of daily life. There is plenty of escapist pop music out there to choose from and no shortage of escapist Biblespeak. For Australian artist Nick Cave, however, music seems to be the only vein left with any blood in it.
Following the death of his 15 year-old son last year, Cave decided to swim directly into the undertow. The result, Skeleton Tree, is one of the most moving, desperately sad, and deeply human artistic endeavors of the year. It is certainly the most compelling work I have ever heard from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and that’s saying something.
A teacher once told me that the Old Testament book of Judges is all about Jesus because it describes just how dark and terrible the human experience is without him. In a similar way, the songs of Skeleton Tree, though never specifically chronicling the death of Cave’s son, are about that tragedy nonetheless. It swirls with ghosts, evoking emotional devastation with poetic, often oblique lyrics and instrumentation that is fragmented, haunting, deeply melodic, and profoundly unsettling. This melodious, macabre, melancholia is overwhelmingly listenable. I resonate with Cave’s meditation on a human level. I let it wash over me and realize that sometimes it’s just good to know that we are not alone in our pain.
This melodious, macabre, melancholia is overwhelmingly listenable.
While Cave’s reflections frequently use Biblical or religious imagery, each example is open to a variety of interpretations. The album’s opener, “Jesus Alone,” is a prayer to something, or someone, certainly. “With my voice I am calling you,” he intones over a gorgeous tapestry of ambient sounds. And yes, it seems possible that through the lyrics he is creating some kind of parallel between the pain he is experiencing and the pain God may have been experiencing as he saw his son tortured and killed. Is it Jesus whom Cave is thinking of as he sings, “You’re a young man walking, covered in blood that is not yours.”? Later in the same song he sings, “You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now.” The cup has not passed. You must drink from it just like the pagans and the lost.
On “Magneto,” he recalls the day he seems to have become a believer when he whispers, “It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus.” On “Anthrocene,” which seems an attempt to personify the human age as a time when even the earth itself, along with the animals and plants, sings a lament: “All the things we love… we lose. It’s our bodies that fall when they try to rise. And I hear you been looking out for something to love.” If being created in the image of God means, in part, to be creative and capable of love and joy, it is also, in part, to be capable of deep pain and anger.
Cave’s work has been deeply spiritual in the past. Never has it been soaked in such darkly Christian imagery, though. If he does identify with Jesus, it seems to be more through shared suffering than a hope of resurrection. That’s what dark nights are about. Skeleton Tree, as the title suggests, is a twist of branches dancing in the moonlight. We’ll each see different shapes and hear different tones as we encounter it in the dark. Cave swirls around the pain in a long arc that, in its own odd and beautiful way, traces a pattern of common experience. It can be a dark fellowship we share.