Published Sep 09, 2016The shift in tone from 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! to Push The Sky Away to Skeleton Tree is sizeable, to say the least. You really have to marvel at the Bad Seeds for being metamorphic enough to change on cue, as Nick Cave's masks keep falling to the floor.
He's lead them through tales of debauchery, Christian ballads, dirty rock anthems and softly sung laments, all with the grim reaper hovering in the background, claiming Cave's characters left and right. So, how could they not follow him once more into the gloom when death struck Cave's real life, by taking his 15-year-old son in a cliff-fall near their home in Brighton last year?
Though the recording of Skeleton Tree began before the tragic death of his son, it was completed in its wake, and that, more than anything, feels like the guiding force behind the album. Though he's tackled death countless times in his songs throughout the years, there's a notable difference here; this is an album that feels driven by intense trauma.
Yet, even still, Cave plays with uncertain imagery in his lyrics, alluding to true change, or the impossibility of it, throughout. "I Need You" could be seen as a heartbroken paean to a lost love or his inability to recognize himself anymore. Mysterious female characters are also the focus of a number of songs on the record, and their presence is anything but obvious. On "Rings of Saturn" could the "she" he's referring to be pain, or even death itself? Is the bride of Jesus on "Magneto" Cave's willingness to sacrifice all just to go to heaven with a loved one? Whatever the meaning, Cave stays cryptic with his poetic lyrics as he tries both to deal and not to deal with insurmountable loss.
Skeleton Tree is one of the most apt examples of a man's grief being put to wax that anyone could imagine. Stirring is barely even enough to describe the record. It's more like a front row seat to someone's soul shattering, and his inevitable attempt to piece it back together — except the decision to reconstruct the original or make something new and unknown is a different problem in itself. (Bad Seed Ltd.)