Dissection: “Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Has anyone guessed that I like Nick Cave yet?

This song is one of the most emotionally heavy songs for me.  I’m not going to detail the whole story behind the song and album again, you can google that, but I feel the need to try and share these emotions.  It’s so overwhelming for me that I can’t really put it into words, so, with that in mind, I’m going to try and dissect it a bit, and maybe it will help you and I both understand it a bit.

Sunday morning, skeleton tree
Oh, nothing is for free
In the window, a candle
Well, maybe you can see

One of the things that makes Nick Cave special to me is his ability to speak simple phrases and have them hold so much more weight because of the inflections in his voice.  These first four lines are not complex, but I can feel their weight every time.  Their crushing weight.  The empty “Nothing is for free” said as though you’ve been handed the keys to a mansion by a dark stranger, knowing full you can’t afford it and will end up paying for it somehow.  A deal with the devil.  And the last two bars where you go through the motion of lighting a candle for someone that you know will never see it, but just hoping that somehow this whole thing isn’t real, and the candle will guide them back.

Fallen leaves thrown across the sky
A jittery TV
Glowing white like fire
Nothing is for free

Chaos.  Disorder.  Confusion.  Knowing that the toll for all of the pure, unaltered happiness you have experienced has been charged.

[Chorus 1]
I called out, I called out
Right across the sea
But the echo comes back empty
Yeah, nothing is for free

Being overwhelmed in a state of surreal emotion, not being able to control yourself and calling out, and hearing nothing but the sharpest silence.  The realization that what you held dearest is gone forever.

[Verse 2]
Sunday morning, skeleton tree
Pressed against the sky
The jittery TV
Glowing white like fire

[Chorus 2]
And I called out, I called out
Right across the sea
I called out, I called out
That nothing is for free

At first you called out for the one you’re missing, the one that has been taken from you far too soon.  And now, you call out, right across the sea, that nothing is for free, as a warning to those that still have the ones they love, and as a reminder to cherish the things that you hold dear in every, single waking moment.

[Outro]
And it’s alright now
And it’s alright now
And it’s alright now…

Trying to convince yourself.  Trying to go on living, knowing that the rest of your life will be tied to this event.  This is some kind of empty hope; it’s a defense mechanism to trick yourself into being able to face every single day from here on out.  After all of this, what other option do you have?  What else could someone do in this situation?  It’s too much for anyone, but it’s alright now.

I have two very specific memories tied to this song.  The first is the night this album was released.  It was streamed live from a radio station in London I believe, and I was listening through a link online for the first time.  I sat in my apartment after my long day and week, and after months of anticipating this, I could just feel it’s weight bearing down upon me the entire time.  I know Nick Cave’s music and art so well; it’s been such a huge part of my life that I knew when I heard the news of his son passing, that if he ever made music again, it was going to be the heaviest thing I’d ever heard.  That’s exactly what it was, but this song on the end of the album, the title track, was something I wasn’t expecting.  The hope that it breathed into me after the preceding seven songs absolutely beat me down was incredible.  It was perfect; him finding this hope in the dimmest of situations.  Him seeing that his wife needed him and finding a new meaning for life through her.  For me personally, this was also the opening of the flood gates, because I cried like I hadn’t in years.

The second memory I have of this was when I saw Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds live on June 26, 2017 in San Diego, California.  I had seen them twice before, and seen Nick once with Grinderman, so I had some sort of expectation.  They played the large majority of this new album, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “there’s no way they’ll play ‘Skeleton Tree'” because I didn’t think it was really a live, in-concert type of song.  They sure did though, right in order after the gut-punch that is “Distant Sky”, and one more time (with feeling), I was a mess.  The person I was with had no idea what was going through my mind, that all of this I just typed was hitting me all at once, multiplied by a million.  She had no idea that this song makes me cry almost every time I hear it, she had no idea what seeing it live while being in the same room as Nick Cave while he sang it would do.  Neither did I.  My god, those few moments, the duration of this song, were everything to me.  But I know it’s alright now, even though nothing is for free.

Studio version:

Live version:

 – MCG.

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