Ever since I saw Nick Cave twist and brood in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), in which he and the Bad Seeds turned “From Her to Eternity” into a hymn for the forlorn, I have always listened to their songs as religious music for the fallen. Just as Wenders’ angels, Damiel and Cassiel, looked over and worried about humanity in an unbelieving world ravaged by world war and divided by the Berlin Wall, so too does Cave and his collaborators evoke a world, across sixteen studio albums, in which love and skepticism are the two angels guiding the consciences of people who are on an endless search for acceptance, affirmation, relief, forgetting, and oblivion. The Bad Seeds’ world is a world of Cain and Abel, Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, an image that was reinforced for me by Cave’s 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel.
In the case of Skeleton Tree, released a mere twelve days ago on September 6, the spirit of Job is conjured throughout each of the album’s eight songs. More to the point, Skeleton Tree is an album of loss, mourning, and anguish, which is infused with an otherworldly beauty. The music is sparse and moody, while the lyrics are emotionally complex. From “Jesus Alone,” in which various tragic figures are seen in their darkest hour, to the title track, which stirs up a desolate landscape and “a jittery tv,” each song explores a different form of anguish, be it a lost love, “I Need You,” or a lost child, “Girl In Amber.”
How much of what appears in this album was inspired—if that’s the right word—by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son, Arthur, last year at the Ovingdean Gap near Brighton, England, one cannot say based on the lyrics alone. What is obvious is the tone of despair and elegiac splendor, which take the listener from the hopelessness of “Anthrocene,” in which Cave sings “All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose” to the hint of redemption in “Distant Sky,” which sings with anticipation, “Soon the children will be rising, will be rising,” even if “This is not for our eyes.” My favorite song, though, is “Rings of Saturn,” which is about the epiphany of a woman, “Her body, moon blue, was a jellyfish” and who is “completely unexplained.”
In the end, Skeleton Tree is a more than worthy successor to Push the Sky Away (2014). For even if one is unaware of the tragedy that has befallen Cave, the songs comprising this album are as evocative and fulfilling as anything he has ever done, be it Tender Prey (1988) or Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004). All I can tell you is that I haven’t been able to stop listening to these songs all weekend.