“You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.”
There’s an old cliché about never judging a book by its cover, but perhaps the modern musical equivalent is never judge an album by its press release. So often before listeners are even able to buy a record, they’ve already been told what it’s about, what it sounds like, and what inspired it.
Whilst there’s obviously a charm in the way we are now presented with a snapshot of a musician’s inner workings long before we hear their actual work, it can sometimes lead us to approach listening to a record with dangerously pre-conceived ideas as to it’s themes, inspirations and even sounds.
Perhaps the most obvious example this year came courtesy of David Bowie; Bowie’s death, just two days after the release of Black Star’s release, leant the entire album an eerie morosity. Every lyric on the record was analysed and dissected by fans and critics, looking for some final send off, every song was interpreted as being about an artist speaking to his audience, if not from beyond the grave, but at least from a vantage point of knowing he was not long for this world. It is easy to assume a dying man’s mind is consumed by death, but listen to the music of Black Star without context, and it was also an album resplendent with life.
There’s plenty of less obvious examples too, it was easy to listen to The Spook School’s stunning Try To Be Hopeful and assume every song on it was about gender fluidity and queer theory, when much of it was about wanting to kiss people. Albums by both Lucy Dacus and Torres discussed their feelings about being adopted, but not every thought on their records were consumed by it. While by calling her latest album, My Woman, Angel Olsen obviously opened herself up to discussion of its feminist quality, it was not simply an album about being a woman.
Preconceptions are inevitable, they cannot be avoided, and from a journalistic perspective, in a world where telling someone an album sounds nice when they could just listen to it themselves, they’re also important to provide albums with a narrative and a talking point, and to make reading an album review worthwhile. The key perhaps is not to lose all preconceptions, but to be prepared to amend them, and remain open minded in the face of them.
We must admit that approaching listening to Skeleton Key, the new album from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, we were a little intimidated by it. Recorded both prior and subsequent to the death of Nick’s teenage son, Arthur, how could an event so life changing, raw and personal possibly translate onto a record that was in anyway listenable?
What’s remarkable about Skeleton Key, is that for all the torment, all the heartbreak, all the pent up anger at the unjust nature of the world, it remains remarkably listenable. Sure it’s painful, and on occasion you feel like you’re listening to a man whose entire world has crumbled around him, but somehow both Nick and The Bad Seeds make that something you want to listen to. As with any record, a lot of that probably comes back to the sheer honesty of it; this is not a sweet shrine to Nick’s “little blue eyed boy”, this a great hulking monolith to the power of grief, it’s a record that dips its toes into memories of a loved one, but for the most part is overcome with anger, “hard blues” and feeling utterly helpless and broken.
Nick Cave has always been an artist capable of confronting any human emotion, a lyrical painter of dark, gothic masterpieces. He presents us with worlds where all of our greatest fears and darkest thoughts are present, what’s different about Skeleton Key is that where previously he sat above the worlds like some great, puppet master; here we find Nick walking amongst the very demons and sadness he usually curates. This is in no small part due to the stunning production, throughout the record Nick’s voice sounds front and centre, but is often little more than a gentle, cracked whisper.
The other element that switches this album from the classic gothic world of The Bad Seeds back catalogue is that much of it takes place in the real world, while Nick’s lyrics remain as poetic and literate as ever, here we’re presented not with the horrors of the underworld, but with the horrors of the real world. On Magneto, we find Nick walking half-alive through the world of the living, “the urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming, I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues.” It’s possibly the most honest account of just how angry grief can make a person we’ve ever come across. The supermarket recurs in I Need You, a track that could be about so many different things, but ultimately seems to come down to the distance that two people experiencing the same situation can discover between themselves, the feeling of needing someone when both they, and you, are incapable of providing the emotions you require.
A constant throughout the work of Nick Cave has always been an uneasy relationship with religion and spirituality. It also recurs regularly throughout Skeleton Tree, particularly on Jesus Alone, which seems to almost act as a call to arms of the disaffected and troubled, urging them to step away from their troubles. It’s still not clear exactly what Nick’s feelings about the existence of god are, but increasingly he seems unimpressed by his work, noting, “you believe in god but you get no special dispensation for this belief” and latterly, “you’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator.” It perhaps is suggesting that whether you believe or not, it’s time to stop thinking it’s going to help you. Musically Jesus Alone, like much of the record, is a strange mix on minimal instrumentation, that still feels very claustrophobic, here a haunting whistle, and pulsating distortion seem to recur throughout the track, ending a menacing atmosphere throughout.
Interestingly, we’ve seen the record described by many as not sounding much like a Bad Seeds record, but we would argue in many ways it’s a natural musical progression from their last record, 2013’s Push The Sky Away. That too was a record that pushed what we think of as the band’s sound, increasingly it’s been a long time since they were a straight forward rock band. If Push The Sky Away was taking the band into atmospheric and gently electronic pastures, more akin to some of Warren Ellis’ work outside of the band, Skeleton Key steps fully into that sort of territory. Even tracks like Girl In Amber, ostensibly a piano ballad with probably the record’s most heart-wrenchingly broken vocal, are here coated in an impressive, and intriguing production, here vocals are processed into a backing track, it’s minimal but also very clever and intricate. Elsewhere Rings Of Saturn bristles with flickering static, and the glitchy percussion of Anthrocene wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radiohead record, while the much talked about addition of soprano, Else Torp, is, even in the opinion of this soprano hating writer, genuinely an intriguing addition, although not as good as the wonderful rushes of tympani that accompany her.
In this unsurprisingly dark record, there’s only the briefest hint of light at the end of the tunnel, in the shape of closing track, Skeleton Key. Building around the wonderful swirling organ sound that feature heavily across the record, it paints a scene of Nick screaming out to the world, “I called out across the sea, but the echo comes back empty, and nothing is for free.” As the track drifts to its conclusion though, we find The Bad Seeds chiming in alongside Nick, and repeating the line, “and it’s alright now.” Whilst quite clearly not everything is alright, it’s fitting that Nick is joined by his long term comrades, a reminder of the power of friendship and its ability to help people through even the bleakest events.
It’s easy to listen to this album and find Arthur’s presence everywhere you look, but that’s probably misleading, half the record was made before his death. Ultimately we’ll never know exactly where he occurs in Nick’s work, and nor should we; this album is Nick’s personal testament, we can only speculate as to what exactly he means, and we can only admire his ability to make something so horrific into something truly beautiful.
Skeleton Tree is out now via Bad Seeds Ltd.