Skeleton Tree is the sixteenth studio album by the Australian rock band Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. While it was released last fall, it did not seem to get much attention from the Christian media. This is unfortunate because Cave’s typical grim but spiritually informed musings are thrown into stark relief on this record.
During the recording in 2015, Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, died from an accidental cliff fall near the family’s home in Brighton, England. Most of the album had been written at the time of Arthur's death, but several songs were later amended by Cave during subsequent recording sessions in the aftermath of the loss. The result is a raw, tortured theology of grief, a profound exploration of all the emotions that accompany the loss of a child.
The record was accompanied by the simultaneous release of a companion film, One More Time With Feeling, a documentary of the making of the album and a depiction of how Cave’s family and his band dealt with the horrific loss. It was conceived to explain the context and themes of Skeleton Tree and to spare Cave from conducting interviews with the media.
The scope of this tragedy casts a long shadow over Skeleton Tree. Clearly Cave is in deep mourning. The album’s haunting opening track “Jesus Alone,” written in 2014, begins with “You fell from the sky, crash-landed in a field near the River Adur” and is eerily prescient of the tragedy to come. While Cave calls out on the same song “With my voice, I am calling you,” it seems more a cry of ambiguity than an affirmation of faith.
The record’s minimal production, stripped down and marked by the swaying sounds of synthesizers, drum machines, and tape loops, paints a dissonant and desolate sonic landscape that mirrors the dreary, dreamlike atmosphere of the lyrics. The album’s barren all-black cover further reinforces the almost all-encompassing ennui. On “Anthrocene,” Cave shares a sad refrain: “All the things we love, we lose.” And on “Distant Sky,” his wounded voice reminds listeners, “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied.”
Swallowed up by grief, Cave’s Skeleton Tree bleakly chronicles his pain and suffering. But it’s a testament to a grief in process. Can such pain be overcome? Clearly it cannot be contained—not now, perhaps never. The album’s title song and very last verse reveals the uneasy peace that Cave has come to: “It’s alright now/ It’s alright now/ It’s alright now.” (Bad Seed Ltd)