For most of his career, Nick Cave has been acquainted with death.
Whether it was mulling over suicide in “Shivers,” in his first band, the Boys Next Door, or filling an entire album – Murder Ballads – with so many casualties listeners have actually tallied them up (75 people, plus one dog), Cave’s sensibilities have always leaned to the morbid, even as they displayed a wry, scathing wit. “I find it kind of tiresome writing about the good side of life,” he told PEOPLE in 1996.
But in 2015, Cave’s life – and his relationship with death – was horribly upended when his 15-year-old son Arthur died falling from a cliff near the family’s home in Brighton, England. (A coroner’s inquest later revealed that Arthur had taken LSD before the accident.) Cave’s father died in a car accident when the singer was just 19; to lose his own son to a freak accident four years younger than he was at the time seems almost like the kind of twisted joke he might have mined for material at one point.
Cave’s grief was, and still is, hard to fathom, but he channels it powerfully with his newest album with longtime band the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree. The album was accompanied by a one-weekend only impressionistic documentary film about the album’s creation called One More Time with Feeling. “Nick deals with everything in life by working,” the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, said at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. “If his heart is broken, he can turn it into a song, everything is a grist for the mill.”
A mill is an apt metaphor for what Skeleton Tree apparently functioned as, and resembles. The album is far more stripped-down than his previous work, and forced through the process of Skeleton Tree‘s inception, Cave’s pain was so finely ground, it became transparent. Listening to the album is a heartbreaking and deeply touching experience knowing what we do about its creation.
“Most of us don’t want to change, really,” Cave says in the film. “But what happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from a known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you recognize the person that you were?” Cave returns to ideas of identity and reflection throughout Skeleton Tree, processing that catastrophe’s effect on himself.
“You fell from the sky / crash-landed in a field,” is the first line on the album, from “Jesus Alone,” and while the song was purportedly written months before Arthur’s death and more or less ad-libbed, it’s still a powerful opening statement. “With my voice, I am calling you,” Cave continues, and it becomes the album’s theme: A father working to reach his son and process his feelings about his death through music.
In the film, Cave worries that his voice is out of shape for recording, and Skeleton Tree‘s vocals are indeed a far cry from the banshee shrieks he emitted in his second band, the Birthday Party, or the supple, funereal croon he started employing through the 1990s. But whatever weakness Cave was describing ends up becoming one of the album’s greatest strengths: “I will miss you when you’re gone / I will miss you when you’re gone away forever,” he sings in “I Need You,” the grain of his voice somehow at once hollow and brimming full of feeling.
On earlier releases, Cave’s lyrics could veer towards the overly verbose, but he’s pared down his language to austere, elegiac lines on Skeleton Tree. Later on in “I Need You,” Cave simply repeats the title with different inflections, like an incantation. “Just breathe,” he says at one point, as if he’s reassuring himself. Other lines are more specific: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world,” he muses later, in “Girl in Amber,” before concluding, “Well, I don’t think that any more.” In “Magneto,” there’s a blunt, explicit line – “In the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink” – that seems wrenched from the immediate aftermath of Arthur’s death. (There’s an extended scene of Cave’s morning routine at the bathroom mirror in the 2015 film, 20,000 Days on Earth that plays into to his long-running fascination with mirrors, observation and identity.)
Unlike other albums created out of grief – like Neil Young’s noisy, haggard Tonight’s the Night, recorded after the deaths of two friends – Skeleton Tree‘s actual sound belies its content and context. “Anthrocene,” which features a bed of atonal noise and skittering drums under Cave’s vocals, is the outlier of the eight songs; most of them barely contain percussion and are padded out by lush synthesizers and strings. “Distant Sky” is a flat-out beautiful duet with Danish soprano Else Torp, even with lyrics like, “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
It’s hard to describe exactly why we’re drawn to others’ expressions of pain, especially in music. To listen to a work like Skeleton Tree is to stare directly into another person’s chasmic anguish, but it is a transcendent experience. “It’s all right now,” Cave repeats at the album’s close, in stark contrast to its opening.
We don’t know who he’s addressing: Himself, his family, or us, the listener – maybe he’s absolving us for taking so much satisfaction from such dark circumstances. Just before that line, he sings, “Nothing is for free.” It’s a powerful takeaway from this unforgettable piece of art, maybe the best eulogy a grieving father could give a departed son.