Skeleton Tree: Nick Cave’s Artistic Reinvention

Few musicians are as mythologized as Nick Cave. The persona crafted around him is as dark as his suits. But when real darkness cast a shadow over his life, it changed the man behind the mask.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014), the fictionalized day-in-the-life documentary about Nick Cave is an ode to music, writing and the importance of keeping the creative fire burning. But when Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died in 2015, his artistic flame seemed to have been extinguished indefinitely.

Whereas 20,000 Days on Earth was playful and colorful, Andrew Dominik’s 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling is its polar opposite. It’s a movie that gets up close and personal, portraying Cave’s grief in stark black and whites.

After the tragedy, fans were surprised when this year’s Skeleton Tree was announced. How could anyone keep creating after such a loss? Then again, how else would Nick Cave deal with it if not through music? The question that lingered was how the hell such a personal album would sound.

Not every song on the album is explicitly about Arthur’s death (since some of them were conceived before it happened), but every song is inextricably permeated by it.

Most times, a listener can ignore the memories and experiences that created a musical work. But it’s impossible to separate Skeleton Tree from the tragic event that shaped it.

One More Time With Feeling encapsulates this notion. In the movie, Nick says that the tragedy has completely changed him, that he doesn’t recognize himself after such a cataclysmic event. That is also apparent in the music of Skeleton Tree.

When other musicians want to reinvent themselves, they usually do so in order to stay relevant or expand their musical boundaries. This isn’t the case with Nick Cave.

His musical expression has changed with his son’s demise.

Gone are the narrative constructions and musical formulas that he has previously relied on. The lyrics are singsung in a stream-of-conciousness-like manner. Time signatures and songs structures seem to have been tossed out the window.

This is far from the first time that Cave has experimented, but the important difference here is the impetus. Skeleton Tree stems not from a need of artistic rejuvenation, but from a musical breakdown — a trauma.

In the film, Nick says that some artists wish for life-changing events in order to have something to write about. But instead of being a transformative source of inspiration, Arthur’s death has severley damaged his creativity.

“This is fucking difficult” he sighs at one point.

That is why Skeleton Tree manages to capture the sound of grief. It is the sound of a fractured artist trying to learn a language once again. No musical narrative can undo the damage that has been done.

Or?

At this time of writing, Nick and his Bad Seeds are scheduled to embark on both an Australian and a North American tour in 2017. Plus, he and his cohort Warren Ellis have been working on scores for the movie Hell or High Water and the miniseries Mars.

If Skeleton Tree saw Cave stumbling through the darkness, subsequent works may light that creative fire once again.

One more time, with feeling.