Review: “Skeleton Key” – Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds 

It starts with a deep rumbling noise, atonal and worrying. A high pitched whistling sound punctuates like a warning. They repeat. It sounds more like Nine Inch Nails than what you would expect from a Nick Cave album. There is a sense of ominous foreboding, like a dark storm of grief, melody buried deep within the song. Then comes THAT voice with words that will be over analysed for years to come:

“You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the River Adur”

For those not in the know, the album Skeleton Tree was started just before the death of Nick’s fifteen year old son who fell from the cliffs in Brighton. Of course this would heavily inform the album. Cave and his fellow Bad Seeds have operated around the darker fringes of life for their career and I think most listeners have been incredibly wary of the album, wondering how raw it would be. 

The opening song Jesus Alone had a video emerge a few days before the dual release of the album and accompanying film (One More Time With Feeling which I’ve not yet seen). It’s dark and captures the band with a string section filmed in black and white. When I first heard it I’ll admit to feeling a little unsettled. It didn’t sound like what people were expecting. We were expecting gentle, piano led songs of sadness, not this monster. It is Cave’s grief, sorrow, anger, loss and guilt made whole. Warren Ellis has done a fantastic job of building the perfect soundscape for these emotions to run amongst. It marks a bit of a musical shift for the Bad Seeds. Guitars are left to mainly gather dust as the band experiment more to create something that sits unique in the Nick Cave catalogue. 

Jesus Alone doesn’t real alter itself much through the course of it’s Velvet Underground feel. Touches of piano embellish the chorus as Nick sings “With my voice I am calling you.” 

Speaking of lyrics, they carry a stream of consciousness feel like the previous album’s Higgs Boson Blues, like he’s trying to exorcise what’s in his head. There are some lines though that chill to the bone, “You cried beneath the dripping trees, Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid” barely hints at the depth of his grief. 

Rings Of Saturn swings through next, all treated drums and weird keyboards. Nick let’s loose a stream of conscious lyrics. There’s still an air of sadness about the song, not in a direct way, but you certainly feel like the woman of the song is trapped in these pointless routines that she’s trying to cut herself off from. 

A piano leads Girl In Amber with keyboard swells augmenting it, sounding closer to the usual Nick Cave we would expect. But again, it’s subverted by another vocal that makes it sibling to the previous one (“Girl in amber trapped forever, Spinning down the hall”), the girl in amber alluding to how they’ve become frozen in time. Cave’s voice sounds like he’s aching, trying to hold everything together (“If you want to leave, don’t breathe and let the world turn”) as everything is slipping away from him. “Don’t leave me” he repeats at the song’s closing, sounding more and more like he’s trapped, desperately trying to make sense of everything. 

Magneto carries along Nick’s spoken word blues over a throbing and pulsating soundscape, describing himself as “an electrical storm on the bathroom floor”. It’s a nightmare described by David Lynch, allusions of blood, vomit, stars and love all scattering themselves throughout the song. The album is certainly fighting for the title of Cave’s most nonlinear and visceral yet.

Jazz drum loops rise and fall through Anthrocene. There’s a kind of primal feel to it, the bass lines constant and pushing the song along in absence of a steady beat, almost like a soundtrack to his suffering.

I Need You pulls itself together around a John Carpenter 80’s synth line. It’s video shows a visibly tired and exhausted Cave working on the song in the studio with the other Bad Seeds. Lyrically it feels the most direct and linear from Cave. Again, his voice sounds delicate without being weak. “I will miss you when you’re gone, I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever” he sings, “Nothing really matters, Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone”. You can’t help but feel the tangible grief. I’ve always regarded Into My Arms as his most personal and direct song but this has surpassed it.

Distant Sky breaks the pattern by having Nick duet with Else Torpe, trading verses off each other, their voices complimenting each other perfectly both vocally and lyrically. Nick comes across as lost and sounding like he’s about to give up (“They told us our dreams would outlive us, They told us our gods would outlive us, But they lied”), a broken shell, angry and bitter at what he’s lost whilst Else trys to offer something along the lines of hope (“See the sun, See It Rising, See it rising, Rising in your eyes”). 

The closing Skeleton Tree sounds the closest to a traditional Nick Cave song. It’s almost like he’s trying to return back to his life after everything he’s gone through on the album. There are still moments where he’s still dealing with his loss (“In the window, a candle”) but he’s reaching out to those around him (“I called out, I called out, Right across the sea”). The closing coda of “and it’s alright now” repeated and harmonised with other voices until it fades offers some sense of closure, especially after everything the listener has gone through.

The album leaves you emotionally spent. It’s the sound of a man howling away at his loss, trying to make sense of his changed world. They’re hymns to his pain and grief, sung to a God he believes has abandoned him. No God could be party to this, they couldn’t be this cruel. It’s an album for those moments of reflection when you’re alone, hoping to find some peace in all the chaos. I just hope that Nick and his family can find theirs. 

Skeleton Tree is out now. 

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