The Best Albums of 2016, #5

band015. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed)

After making a career of making music about the darker side of life and spirituality, Nick Cave was dealt the darkest hand a parent could possibly get: the death of one’s child. In July 2015 his 15 year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff in Brighton, England. Even worse, the tragedy happened during the making of his 16th album with the Bad Seeds. How does a person continue with their work after such a devastating, horrible thing? Instead of retreating, Cave kept making the new record, and the shadow of his son’s death looms over the entirety of Skeleton Tree, which is essentially an album about Cave working through his own grief, in the only way he knows how.

The thing is, though, as much as it is about Nick Cave and his own family, and it will be inextricably linked to it forever, Skeleton Tree also succeeds mightily because it’s an album about trauma: experiencing trauma, dealing with trauma, and ultimately healing those wounds. Frankly I don’t know if I have ever heard an album as immersed in trauma and sadness and grief as much as Skeleton Tree is. Its eight tracks form a distinct arc, which is central to the album’s success. “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field,” Jesus Alone begins portentously. Written well before his son’s death, it is absolutely harrowing, from the atonal backing arrangement to Cave’s poetic imagery (“You’re an African doctor harvesting tear ducts”). “Rings of Saturn” reads like a snapshot of Cave’s love for his wife prior to the accident, while “Girl in Amber” is a sketch of her after the accident, the repeated “Don’t touch me” at the end depicting their utter helplessness. “Magneto” brutally captures the numbness of trying to live after trauma: “Mostly I never knew which way was out… the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming…I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues…In the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink.” After hitting rock bottom, “Anthrocene” finds Cave struggling with man’s innate will to live in an era where mankind seems to be dooming itself to extinction. Then the fog clears. “I Need You” finds Cave calling out to his wife and his departed son, the raw emotion palpable. “Distant Sky” is the climactic breakthrough, in which you sense the healing starting to happen, Else Torp’s beautiful singing leading Cave’s narrator by the hand out of the darkness and into the sunshine. The title track brings things to a sombre but, ultimately, a quietly optimistic conclusion. “I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / And nothing is for free,” he sings, and that’s where the subtle change happens: he is now aware of the futility of trying to undo a tragedy, he looks around him, at his wife and Arthur’s twin brother, and realizes, “It’s alright now.” We often don’t heal without a scar remaining, but we heal nevertheless. The desperation expressed by Cave on Skeleton Tree is devastating, but as emotionally intense as the album is, it’s a beautiful journey. It’s sad, but far from depressing. Bad music is depressing. Skeleton Tree, for all its grief and desperation, is life-affirming.