Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

By Andrew Burns, Contributor

[Bad Seed Ltd.; 2016]

Rating: 9.5/10

Key Tracks: “Jesus Alone,” “Rings of Saturn,” “I Need You”

After suffering a great and personal tragedy, Sufjan Stevens released Carrie and Lowell last year. The mythology of Stevens’ character was temporarily stripped away during a raw, humanistic album about tragedy and pain. Skeleton Tree, the newest record from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, is Cave’s Carrie and Lowell. Dark lyricism is still dominant like other Cave albums, but gone is the complex prose that would make Cave seem like an observer of pain and grief rather than the victim. With Skeleton Tree, Cave is communicating a pain beyond many people’s comprehension: the pain of losing a child.

In 2015, part way through the recording of Skeleton Tree, Cave’s 15 year old son tragically passed away, which is the subject of many lyrics on the album. Cave channels his grief into some of the most fervent writing of his career. Most notably, “I Need You,” which contains haunting and emotionally charged lyrics directed to his son. “And I need you. I need you,” Cave sings. “Cause nothing really matters.”

Lyrics aside, the arrangements on Skeleton Tree are sparse and beautiful. Through its use of drone and loops, Skeleton Tree creates a familiarity to ambient music while being ostensibly different. With the exception of the eponymous track, the instrumentals of Skeleton Tree could stand independently as a fantastic ambient album. Cave’s vocals, however, break the album out of the genre. Cave’s vocal delivery is uneasy, but in the best way possible. Usually, the vocals do not conform to the time signature of the underlying arrangements. Cave uses this tactic to bring the listener’s attention to the vocals and lyrics. Since they are not in sync with the rest of the song, the vocals stick out like a sore thumb and fully captivates the listener. The vocals act to highlight Cave’s grief and further exposes listeners to this extreme sorrow.  

Skeleton Tree is a stunning accomplishment in music. The album perfectly communicates an excruciating pain with listeners, adding a new, purely human layer to Nick Cave’s ever complex character. It is amazing that even this late into his career, Cave can still show new sides to himself and desolate audiences without his dark style becoming worn out.

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