Album review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Skeleton Tree’

Annie Zaleski

Four stars

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Skeleton Tree

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album is haunted by a very personal, public tragedy. In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur died after falling from a cliff during a bad LSD trip. The crushing impact of this death permeates the harrowing Skeleton Tree, albeit obliquely. Although his weathered baritone voice always sounds weary, Cave seems especially beaten down on the dirge-like title track—which features faraway, elegiac piano and whispering drums—and especially desperate on “I Need You,” a tale of romantic destruction.

The Bad Seeds match these tones with their own somber, black-velvet instrumentation: grinding synthesizers, hollowed-out violin, keening guitar and the occasional burst of frantic, percussive programming. These flourishes are subdued and devoid of abrasiveness; instead, by utilizing space and restraint, the Bad Seeds cushion and support Cave’s vocals. That approach makes Skeleton Tree’s lyrics feel even more like open wounds. “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied,” he sings on “Distant Sky,” an exhausted tremble in his voice. On “Girl in Amber,” Cave intones even harsher truths: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber till your crumble were absorbed into the earth/Well, I don’t think that anymore/The phone, it rings no more."

Ultimately, Skeleton Tree is a wrenching album with immense depth and an unquenchable emotional ache.

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