I finally listened to Nick Cave’s new record, Skeleton Tree, on Spotify. It’s good. Really good. I hesitated because all the reviews I read had these lump-in-the-throat moments when the writers recounted the horrific death of his teenage son last summer and how the family is coping. That sort of thing didn’t really affect me until I became a dad. Now, it’s devastating.
I think because the lyrics were completed before his tragic loss, listening only to the record is not as difficult an experience as I had been dreading. Yes, there are all kinds of eery coincidences (The record opens with the couplet “You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field;” his son died when he fell from a cliff), but one is bound to see such coincidences when the modern master of the murder ballad experiences a violent loss of a loved one.
But the final records by David Bowie and Warren Zevon, so assured that they were in fact living on borrowed time, offer much more difficult lyrical observations. And Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss and Songs for Drella (mourning the deaths of mentors Doc Pomus and Andy Warhol) and eels’ Electro-Shock Blues (initially about leader Mark Oliver Everett’s sister’s suicide…until his mom got diagnosed with terminal cancer, giving the record a somehow darker B-side) have far more specific and uncomfortable notes of regret and mourning.
But then I saw the video for “I Need You.” If Skeleton Tree has a stand-out track, it is “I Need You.” It’s more droning and meditative than your usual Nick Cave song, and it has a hypnotic quality that is hard to get past.
But the video…the video is devastating. I realize now that most of the early reviews of Skeleton Tree are responding more to the accompanying documentary than to the record itself. To cope with his son’s death, Cave rushed ino the studio to record the material he had been working on, and invited a documentary crew to record this train wreck as some sort of exercise in artistic self-flagellation.
I doubt that the Skeleton Tree will ever leave medium-to-heavy rotation in my record collection (as soon as I find myself at an actual brick-and-mortar record store to buy the thing), but I doubt I can ever bring myself to watch the video of a slightly ragged and out-of-tune formerly-smooth crooner who just lost his son wail, “I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever.”