Given its history, Nick Cave's Skeleton Tree wasn't the sort of album you could first listen to in the background at work, or in the car. I started listening to it at twenty minutes past midnight, and finished it around one in the morning. Music always sounds best at the border of sleep: vivid images spring up in an almost synesthetic way. The shapeless layering of Magneto's sounds becomes a series of small wooden objects placed on a table surrounded by the dark. The muttering, aggressive drumming in Anthropocene becomes a threadbare black cloud, perhaps made of pencil markings or perhaps of birds, floating above the song's space. The thick, slow synthesizer notes in I Need You become rising columns, made half of light and half of fat metal piping.
Calling the album "haunted" is crass, but there isn't a more accurate word. It was written before the sudden death of Cave's teenage son, but recording was completed afterwards. So even if the lyrics revisit Cave's preoccupations (death, god, love, frustrated sexual desire) the album is somehow undeniably 'about' Cave's grief.
Lyrics written before the tragedy keep flickering into stark focus. The opening line of the album is "You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the river Adur", a startlingly explicit opening given the nature of his son's death. When he sings "The urge to kill someone was basically overwhelming/ I had such hard blues in the supermarket queues", the listener gives a context to a line that must have been much vaguer on the page. When, in what seems to be a song about romantic love, Cave repeats "Nothing really matters" and "I need you" over and over, the pain is raw and immediate. The song might be about a breakup, but that isn't what Cave is singing about.
Cave has never been an emotionally direct artist: his work is always masked in theatre, stylisation and irony. He tries on personas - he is the murderer, the monster, the doomed romantic, the mad prophet, the circus ringmaster. His imagery is often overwritten and grotesque. His music is gothy and very much performed. You do not get to know him by listening to his music. He's been doing this for nearly forty years. Making an album that is urgently, painfully about his own grief seems impossible - a swerve away from everything he has done before.
The first album that came to mind when thinking about this was Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which attempted to understand the enormity of the Holocaust through the medium of the love song and somehow got away with it. Neutral Milk Hotel understood the history of pop music well enough to know that pop was never designed to deal with the mechanized violence of the 20th century, and rather than risking something accidentally cheap, they emphasised the rough naivety of so much pop, and aimed it at a vast and distant target. The tragedy at the centre of Skeleton Tree is much more personal, and pop music has always been more comfortable with the personal. Nevertheless there is something similar happening here. The album doesn't ever confront tragedy head on. It uses Cave's familiar and comfortable forms and subjects, but allows the light to bend around them into the dark.
The second album that came to mind was Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell. Like Skeleton Tree, Carrie and Lowell is a raw, stark examination of the artist's grief. But the two albums travel down very different roads. Despite its emotional brutality, Carrie and Lowell is oddly welcoming. Its melodies are delicate, its arrangements are simple, its lyrics are direct. Somehow it aetheticises pain without diminishing it; it invites us to share in the pain, to bring our own pain to the table. As an act of generous communication, it is extraordinary.
Skeleton Tree is no less powerful, but Cave does none of this.
Many of the songs on Skeleton Tree feel structureless, rhythmless. Cave often half-sings and half-speaks: his voice worn, breaking or constrained by emotion. Sounds swirl and disperse. The listener is unmoored, not quite sure where the song is asking us to go, what it is trying to do. Once again, Cave is wearing a mask. But this time, it's not part of a grand performance. This time the mask stops us getting too close. We can see Cave's grief, but it isn't ours to share. This isn't like Sufjan Stevens, inviting us in; we are watching Cave's world, we don't know the rules and he has no duty to explain them. We can see the cryptic, gothy lyrics, written without foreknowledge of the tragedy, but we can only guess at the ways his grief animates them. And guessing seems like voyeurism.
The closest the album comes to conventional beauty is its penultimate track, Distant Sky. Here the clear melody and direct lyrics approach the methods of Carrie and Lowell. But Cave doesn't sing for most of the track. At the moment of his clearest communication, Cave absents himself, and is replaced by the Danish soprano Else Torp. He doesn't - perhaps can't - remove the mask. But as the song reaches its close, the mask slips, and he returns with the words "They told us our gods would outlive us/ They told us our dreams would outlive us/ They told us our gods would outlive us/ But they lied". Perhaps on Let Love In or Tender Prey, these words would be a gothic overstatement. Perhaps on Murder Ballads, they would be a theatrical threat. Perhaps on The Boatman's Call they would be sung with a sly irony. And perhaps they were written that way. But here, as the album draws to a close, they just sound true.