Australian elder statesmen of rock Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds have a back catalogue that spans over 30 years and a vast array of subject matter—including faith, life and death, romance, and other very human issues—but their 16th album The Skeleton Tree might be their heaviest yet. Halfway through the recording of the album, Cave’s 15 year-old son, Arthur, died in a horrific accident near the family’s hometown of Bristol, England. With Push the Sky Away, the Bad Seeds’ 2013 album, Cave made it clear that he is one of the most engaging and talented singer-songwriters currently working, but the artistry displayed in The Skeleton Tree’s eight tracks—and Cave’s willingness to face the grieving process head-on in sonic form—distinguish it as one of the best albums of 2016, and possibly of the decade.
For those who have followed Cave and the Bad Seeds’ music for some time, that this album is a triumph comes as no surprise; the depth and resonance that the music and lyrics create as a whole are absolutely stunning. The first track, “Jesus Alone,” was written before the death of Cave’s son, yet its opening lyrics (“You fell from the sky / Crash-landed in a field / Near the river Adur“) take on an unexpected meaning in light of that event. The music itself tends to be spare and, at times, rather sparse for a Bad Seeds album—if you’re coming to this album expecting the dense, crashing musical accompaniments that the Bad Seeds have made something of a trademark throughout their storied run as a band, you may want to look elsewhere. This intentional minimalism, however, fits the subject matter almost too perfectly—and, just as crucially, allows Cave’s voice and lyrics to take up the majority of the listener’s attention.
Even with the lack of “traditionally” Seeds-esque instrumentation, the vocals on this album are nothing short of spectacular—and, at times, make for an uncomfortable listen, as we can hear the many nuances in Cave’s vocal inflections, whether the material is spoken or sung. This discomfort does not get in the way of The Skeleton Tree being a rewarding and necessary listen; like Bjork’s Vulnicura, another deeply powerful and uncomfortable work that takes listeners on a guided tour of grief (for a broken romantic partnership), Cave’s work here asks a lot of its listeners even as he gives us a window into his—and his family’s—mourning following a catastrophic event. His skill as a writer is unparalleled here; the fractured narratives of “Jesus Alone” and “Rings of Saturn” lead in to the elliptical, heartbreaking “Girl in Amber,” an aching sketch of his wife’s remembrances of their deceased son’s early years.
The album’s middle songs, “Magneto,” “Anthrocene,” and “I Need You,” respectively, paint beautiful and complex portraits of Cave’s own grief-tinged responses to the mundane in the weeks following Arthur’s death; all three songs illustrate the ways in which the individual response to trauma is highly personal and often unpredictable. Yet even in the face of life changing trauma, individuals must find ways to persevere; as “Anthrocene” and “I Need You” demonstrate, Cave’s love for his wife and his family—and their love for him—have given him the strength to keep going after seemingly insurmountable tragedy. The album’s penultimate track, “Distant Sky,” finds Cave metaphorically reckoning with the “after” of his son’s death, faith in a higher power, and what it means when a parent outlives their child. Danish soprano Else Torp’s guest vocal on “Distant Sky” is gorgeously evocative and fits a song that could have been maudlin—if not for its context of Cave’s previous sonic and lyrical explorations of religion, faith, and belief.
That Cave has been able to create a work of art that is so moving even as it is profoundly sad is both astonishing and admirable. The Skeleton Tree is not only one of the most essential listens of 2016, but it is the work of a grieving soul—and of a songwriter, musician, and father who must grapple with impossible questions after his family has faced incredible trauma.