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.

My Top 20 Albums of 2016.

2016 was a son of a bitch.  Rest in peace Leonard Cohen, Prince, David Bowie, Phife Dawg, Sharon Jones, Merle Haggard, Muhammad Ali,  Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, etc., not to mention all the social injustice and unrest, but I digress.  One good thing is there was an abundance of great music released this year, and so there’s no way I could limit it to ten and feel okay about it.  Here are my top 20 albums of the year.

 

20.  A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

What a comeback, and for great reason; Phife was the catalyst for this album ever happening.  What a way to go out and what a tribute.

19.  Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp

Not typically my type of thing, it wasn’t until I heard the live Audiotree versions of these songs that they really caught on.  Great, light, feel-good music.

18.  Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

Two great indie musicians came together and it didn’t disappoint.  Great vocals and great production, as if anything else was possible with these two.

17.  Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow

A great follow up to a debut album that I listened to like crazy back in 2014.  No sophomore slump for Nothing, just more towering, enveloping shoegaze.

16.  Woods – City Sun Eater in the River of Light

I knew I would like this one but I didn’t realize I’d like nearly as much as I did.  Great, funky, bluesy riffs and along with all the other things that have made Woods one of the most consistently good indie bands of the millennium.

15.  Conor Oberst – Ruminations

Stripped down music is what this man was made for, so those poignant vocals and clever, satiric lyrics can shine through.

14.  The Amazing – Ambulance

Along the lines of the Nothing album I mentioned above, just a bit more dialed in, and industrial which is something I’ve always had an ear for.  This album sets a mood and forces you into it.

13.  Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

This is probably the one album on here that I recognize as really good that I didn’t listen to as much as the others.  It’s great, there’s no doubt about that, but it didn’t click with me completely, or it hasn’t yet.  Sometimes these things take time, you should definitely listen to it.

12.  The Body – No One Deserves Happiness

Loud, aggressive, in-your-face, punishing, world-destroying walls of sound.  Delicious.

11.  Operators – Blue Wave

Time to fuckin’ dance.  “Cold Light” is my runner up for song of the year.

10.  David Bowie – Blackstar

Only Bowie would release and album this good and die two days later.  Unreal, just like everything he ever did.

09.  Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

Only Cohen would release and album this good and die three weeks later.  Unreal, just like everything he ever did.  Legends like these last two will live forever, and as well they should.

08.  Bon Iver – 22, A Million

I seem to like each Bon Iver album ever so slightly less than the previous one, which is still leaps and bounds above most bands’ output.  His voice is the golden ticket, and even here when he chops it up and distorts it, it’s something to behold.

07.  DMA’S – Hills End

This was my album of the late spring/early summer.  Great times were had at the pool with beers in hand while this thing was playing.  Love the vocal melodies.  The live Spotify sessions are great stripped down versions; “Step Up the Morphine”, “Blown Away”, “Delete”, “Lay Down”; this thing is packed.

06.  Deftones – Gore

One of my favorite bands ever, this was a shoe in due to my bias.  I think the experiments with different song structures and ideas paid off for them.  It wasn’t as easily accessible as they’ve always been, but once I cracked the code I could’ve get enough.  The title track is a blood curdling scream-fest, and how Chino still belts those things out after all this time is something that should not go unnoticed.

05.  Russian Circles – Guidance

This is another of my favorites, but because of this band’s style and niche I think they’ll always succeed, and since they got ahold of me early on in their careers and my adulthood, I will always cherish them.  “Afrika” is among their best songs ever.

04.  Pinegrove – Cardinal

Of anything on this list, this is the album that grew on me the most.  I nearly outright dismissed it, but over time it really started to resonate with me to the point that I think it’s probably the album I’ve listened to the most.  It’s great front to back, something that will stay with me for a long time to come.

03.  Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Another of my favorite bands of all time (I’ve had a good year, at least music wise).  I’d put this near the middle of Radiohead’s catalog; nothing generation defining like before but very accessible and immediately enjoyable.  The excitement that came with finally hearing studio versions of “True Love Waits” and “Identikit”  most assuredly gave my opinion of this one a boost.

02.  Frank Ocean – Blonde

There is so much going on in this one; so many textures, shifts, changes, experiments.  Mr. Ocean very well could’ve made another album full of pop songs with the catchiest of hooks and blow the fuck up, but he chose to be an artist instead.  This left turn has been compared to what Radiohead did with Kid A after their massive success (and one of the best albums ever) with OK Computer, and I think that comparison is a good one.  I like when artists don’t do what the mass public wants them to, because fuck what you think you want, it’s about the art.  “Nights” is my song of the year.

01.  Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

I knew this was going to be my album of whatever year it came out in as soon as I heard about the passing of Cave’s son in July of 2015.  All the beautiful and torturous stories he has told so elegantly throughout his career have shaped my life.  Everything this man says, the simplest conversations, have the chance to be thought-provoking poetry.  Words and conveying emotions are his gift, and so I knew this was going to be one of the heaviest pieces of music I’ve ever heard.  It didn’t disappoint, and I wrote about it length here.  The first two thirds will crush you, and the last third will give you a slight glimmer of hope.  The title track closing it out the way it does gives me chills every time.  2016 was deathly year, and who else  could possible take the throne and fill it like a king other than Nick Cave?

 

Honorable mentions:

Marching Church – Telling It Like It Is
Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked For Death
Mind Spiders – Prosthesis
Wussy – Forever Sounds
Young Thug – No, My Name is JEFFERY
Kendrick Lamar – untitled.unmastered
Holy Esque – At Hope’s Ravine
Pinkshinyultrablast – Grandfeathered
Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow
Vince Staples – Primma Donna EP
The Strokes – Future Present Past EP

– MCG.

Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

 

nick-cave-skeleton-tree

Nick Cave, one of my favorite musicians ever, just released his 16th studio album with The Bad Seeds, entitled Skeleton Tree.  Accompanying it is a film entitled One More Time With Feeling that focuses on the writing process, the events surrounding the album, and includes live performances of the majority of the album’s songs.  A brief background:  Cave’s twin son Arthur was fatally injured when he fell from a cliff last July.  Some of the music here was written beforehand, some after, but the effects of the traumatic event is the focus of both the film and the album.

Originally I had planned on waiting to listen to the album until I saw the film, as Cave had for the most part intended by not releasing many singles in the lead up to the albums release.  I ended up listening to the album four times before I made it to the film screening this past Friday night because it became available to stream and purchase (I bought the digital copy, then went and bought the vinyl the next day).  I don’t regret not waiting because of how the music fit in the film.  Having already heard the music a bit allowed me to focus on the conversations more.

About the film itself, I will say that it was well done, particularly how they utilized silence, often after Nick, Warren (Bad Seed and Cave collaborator in other settings), or Susie (Nick’s wife) talking about the event.  I watched it at a venue that allows alcohol, even still it was so captivating that during those silent moments no one moved or made a noise; the air was sucked out of the room on numerous occasions.  It was heart wrenching to see them try and discuss such a traumatic thing, to see someone so good with words admittedly fall short every time he tries to summarize it.  Cave says they are connected to the personal catastrophe by a rubber band, in that they can stretch and get away from it for a period of time, but they are always snapped back at some point, and he feels it will always be that way.  He wonders aloud about the elasticity of time, and of his existence in each moment as something unique to itself, yet never more significant than any other moment, which is something I’ve struggled with personally day-to-day since I first read Sartre back as a freshman in college, but I digress.  I’ve always been astounded by Cave’s ability to make simple thoughts or conversations so poetic and hold so much weight, so hearing him talk about what happened to his family breaks me apart.  I’ve never felt more pain and sympathy for a stranger in my life.

The music itself is just about exactly what I expected it to be.  The strings, the erratic loops, the perfectly placed piano chords, the somber overtone of it all; we all knew we weren’t going to get anything like “Stagger Lee”, “Loverman”, “Red Right Hand”, “Jack the Ripper”, etc.  It flows very well, and I think the length of it is perfect.  I am surprised by the amount of hope he managed to squeeze in there, and clearly that all stems from his wife and the love he has for her.  In “Rings of Saturn” when he goes from simply speaking “this is the moment, this is exactly what she was born to be” to singing it, and in “Girl in Amber” when he sings “if you want to bleed, just bleed…”god damn.  The first time I heard the album, after the overwhelming, intense somberness of the first two thirds of it, “I Need You” and “Distant Sky” brought hopeful tears to my eyes, and then when the title followed to close it out, I absolutely lost it.  Such a great way to end the album, with a lighter sense of hope that you can feel; “I called out, I called out right across the sea, but the echo comes back empty; nothing is for free”, and then the last words spoke on the album, “it’s all right now”.  

I don’t have children and at this point in my life I really don’t see myself ever wanting them, and a part of that reason is how paranoid and worried I am about the well being of the people I care for and love.  I can’t imagine having to deal with it when it’s multiplied by ten billion for my child, and if something like what happened to Nick Cave happened to me, it would absolutely be the end of me.  I wouldn’t survive, and seeing one of my favorite musicians who has had such a gigantic influence on my life go through it is too much as it is.  All of that said, I feel lucky that he was brave enough to share.

Go give Skeleton Tree its due.  It’s one of the best albums of the year.

– MCG.