I finally got round to listening to the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree. It is an incredible listen, but also quite harrowing. After twenty-three years as a band and sixteen studio releases, the music still manages to sound fresh and different. Warren Ellis’ sparse but haunting instrumentation adds a strange melancholy air to the proceedings. I’ve listened a few times now and I think it might be one of my favourite albums by the band. But also, I don’t plan on listening to it too much.
This isn’t because the album is no good- far from it. It isn’t because I wish to keep myself ignorant of its charms. It’s just that this album is incredibly difficult to listen to. Nick Cave’s son tragically fell to his death in 2015, aged just 15. Although the majority of the album was recorded before the accident, the lyrics were altered and the vocals were redone in the wake of the tragedy. On the finished album, you can hear the pain and grief in Nick Cave’s voice. It cracks and splinters, at times reduced to a howl or a whisper. His anguish is all too evident on this record. It’s a stark, uncompromising look at grief. Just have a listen to ‘Distant Sky’:
The song is both tearful and beautiful. The soprano over the simple instrumentation is like a siren calling you from the underworld. Nick Cave has always dealt with death, but on this album, it is too real and still too raw. Gone are the jaunty killings of Murder Ballads and in its place is a quiet beauty, full of sadness.
For this reason, the album is difficult to listen to. I have a feeling it will remain one of my favourites, but I will listen to it infrequently. It demands your full attention, nothing less. This is not background music. If someone is pouring their heart out to you, it feels rude not to give it your full attention.
There are a few other albums that demand such rapt attention and are similarly painful to listen to. Bowie’s Blackstar at the start of the year is the obvious comparison, but I also find it difficult to listen to Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division for the same reasons. Similarly, Everything’s Getting Older by Aidan Moffat & Bill Wells and Electroshock Blues by Eels are hard to deal with. And yet, they all rank in some of my favourite albums.
I think the reason has to be catharsis. Music is an incredibly emotional experience, affecting you directly more than any other form of art. It’s so immediate and arresting, so music that explores the darker emotions can feel incredibly intense. But we need this music as well as the happy pop. It gives rise to the negative emotions and in doing so releases them. We can feel Nick Cave’s pain and grief, and our pain is released. Catharsis is necessary for us. But in providing catharsis, it links the album to us emotional, stronger than anything else. Perhaps this is why music like the disconcerting Skeleton Tree is so powerful and why it stays with us for so long.
I urge you to go listen. It’s the perfect album for the darkening nights.