As someone who’s never suffered a truly tragic loss, I can’t fully begin to fathom the level of agonyNick Cave was experiencing during the writing and composition of certain parts of “Skeleton Tree”. Every inch of the album is drenched in the most focused sorrow I’ve heard put to music in perhaps my entire life.
“Jesus Alone” opens the album, a rich tapestry of both seething, cryptic anger and despondent melancholy, with subtle allusions to the tragedy that befell Cave and his family in 2015, with lines like, “You’re a young man, waking in a pool of blood that is not your own”. “Rings of Saturn” follows, and is comparably bright when juxtaposed with “Jesus Alone”, with its tuneful keyboard flashes scuttling throughout the background of the instrumental arrangement.
The forlorn piano chords that open “Girl in Amber” are extremely tonally and thematically appropriate when underlying lyrics like, “Some go on, some stay behind, some never move at all, girl in amber trapped forever spinning down my hall”. The airy spaciousness of the opening of “Magneto” is almost a respite from the clawing nihilism on display, until Cave’s broken vocals enter. On the chorus of this song Cave’s voice sounds barely capable of singing without breaking. The lyrics are jarringly violent, “The urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming”, perhaps documenting the indignation one feels at being singled out for tragedy.
“Distant Sky” affected me more than any song has in recent memory. From the harrowing but mesmerizingly beautiful drone that opens the song, to the slow post rock style building of the various ethereal instrumental threads I was gripped by the raw emotion of every aspect. The lyrics too are immersed in a kind of poignant melancholy I have never experienced before. Lines like, “They told us our dreams would outlive us, they told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied”, is a clear reference to Cave’s personal adversity, but lines like, “Let us go now, my only companion, set out for the distant sky”, and, “Soon the children will be rising, this is not for our eyes”, suggests Cave has increased his vision in this song to the concept of raising children as a whole, and recognising that once this work is done, life is simply about allowing them to take their own course in life.
It seems entirely inappropriate to say I “enjoyed” Skeleton Tree”. I appreciate it’s honesty, frailty, unapologetic sadness and artistic merit in ways I can’t recall doing so for some time. It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece, a stroke of tortured genius, inspired by the greatest tragedy a person can suffer. It’s a contender for my Album of the Year, as well as something of an instant classic for me personally.