More than 15 years ago Nick Cave wrote a lecture entitled The Secret Life of the Love Song. In that essay, he lays bare his creative process and philosophy on the nature of songwriting which he relates to (the absence of) God. Cave defines his ars poetica as follows: ‘I see that my artistic life is centered around an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss (…) The way I learned to fill this hole, this void was to write. I learned that through the use of language I was writing God into existence.’ Then he goes further and states: ‘The actualizing of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist.’
In the newly released documentary, One more time with feeling, Nick Cave speaks of change, of a catastrophic event that changes the known person to an unknown person. He speaks of a fundamental fracture within the individual and it is exactly that, a deep rupture not only in the human but in the artist, the songwriter which is easily palpable in the sound of the new record. Narrative structures, creativity, the intrinsic need to arrange and to order experience seem an uncertain method when caught in the trenches of grief. And grief is not sadness. Grief is not the melancholy, sad-eyed beauty pacing up and down Cave’s music, prose, and poetry. It is a sadistic, unpredictable, ravenous monster. If love is a redefining act of creation, grief is the irreversible absence of what love once created. The death of Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur changed the man and the artist forever. This becomes absolutely clear after listening to the music of Skeleton Tree and colors every aspect of it.
The 16th studio album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds does not reveal the work of an artist ‘poeticizing real events’, mythologizing experience and honoring it with beautifully crafted structures. If we accept Philip Larkin’s observation as true and consider the duty of a poet to be ‘the construction of a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely’, we soon come to realize that this album speaks from an ontologically different position. We hardly listen here to a man working through experience. It is not a poet, a craftsman the one singing and playing the music on this album, but a human being consumed with and by grief. If we were to invert Larkin’s idea, one could say that it is rather the experience at the core of the man that is constructing the author and his music, a sum of untamable feelings, of ‘hard blues‘ is dictating the direction of this masterpiece. The singer, the poet is not a calculating technician, he is a raw voice, lost, confused, punched around, transfigured by a violent and merciless and deeply personal pain. It can only be attributed to Nick Cave’s genius that the expression of his personal grief shines with grace. Listening to the record is hearing someone speak from within the undertow, from the bottom of existential darkness, the verge of meaninglessness, not about it, not around it, but from its very center. The man cannot grasp, cannot encompass the catastrophe, he can only endure it. C.S. Lewis’ observation ‘there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it’ applies.
The irremediable fissure becomes clear to the listener when taking into consideration that all songs for Skeleton Tree had been written with prophetic clarity prior to Arthur Cave’s death. I need you brings heartbreaking, irrefutable evidence of the schism within the man who wrote it and the man who sings it now. The lyrics seem to say this is what the song should have been, while the voice singing them says this is what the song is now. What initially had been projected as a love song, written by a poet turns into a mournful prayer rising with vulnerability from a broken voice asking for mercy. There is no violence, no anger in these songs, there is stupor and a very peculiar form of beauty. The album does not have a center, it is not produced to perfection, polished to shine. The lyrics, the arrangements are not edited to perfect symmetry. It’s an ambiguous, unembellished, minimalistic work of raw feeling. Aired for the first time worldwide on BBC6 radio on September 8th at midnight, Skeleton Tree was anticipated by thousands of listeners, most of which I am certain were there not solely by reason of aesthetic curiosity. As a genuine lover of Nick Cave’s art, it has been difficult to reconcile the excitement of hearing his new work for the first time, alongside so many other sleepless enthusiasts, with the apprehension towards what I knew is the consequence of loss. ‘All the things we love, we love, we love, we lose’ he sings in Anthrocene.
Returning to the lecture I mentioned, there is another observation Nick Cave brings to our attention: ‘though the love song comes in many guises (…) they all address God, for it is the haunted premise of longing that the true love song inhabits. It is a howl in the void for love and for comfort and it lives on the lips of the child crying for his mother. (…) I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is a commonplace to state the importance of God and religion in Nick Cave’s body of work. What we find in Skeleton Tree is not a concept of God, but the concept of his absence, the wound inflicted by his indifference: ‘you believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now’ he sings in Jesus Alone. In Distant Sky he continues: ‘they told us our dreams would outlive us/they told us our gods would outlive us / but they lied’. If ever there was a moment of nakedness between the singer and God or his absence, his indifference, his incomprehensible cruelty it is on this album. ‘An existential crisis is in its core a religious crisis’, Eliade observes, and both are something grief brings about. In his analysis on grief, C.S. Lewis writes ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand? Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’
In Jesus Alone the overwhelmed human being cries with almost pleonastic simplicity ‘with my voice, I am calling you’. It is the artist whose attempts at order have failed, the man’s one resort is to sing with a disarming lack of sophistication ‘I need you / In my heart, I need you and nothing really matters / I thought I knew better, so much better / and I need you / I need you / just breathe / just breathe / I need you’. He repeats these words like a mantra. And by repeating them he engages something in the one who listens to his chant, he engages the listener with his openness, his sincerity, and calls upon his own humanity. Death in its nature is impenetrable, but it does not cancel the attempt, the inborn human need to interpret both what can and cannot be understood.
A need for solitude in grief is something captured very delicately on this record. The rejection of solidarity, of compassion. Internal isolation. At the end of Girl in Amber, there is a constant repetition of the lyric ‘don’t touch me’. I choose to interpret it as the rejection of consolation for something that cannot be processed other than in a state of solitude. ‘When did you become an object of pity?’ he asks himself in the documentary directed by Andrew Dominik. Again we do not deal here with the artist observing a man’s grief and reporting. We deal with a man living through the unthinkable, trying to tame it and name it almost by reflex of his artistic identity, trying to chart a wasteland of random, meaningless events. In Julian Barnes’ words: ‘perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that any pattern exists. But we cannot, I think, survive without such belief. So each of us must pretend to find, or re-erect, a pattern. Writers believe in the patterns their words make, which they hope and trust add up to ideas, to stories, to truths. This is always their salvation, whether griefless or grief-struck.’ Between these lines I read – the actual mystery does not reside in the words themselves. It resides in our need, in our power to use them to build the pattern, to pretend to find meaning so that, eventually, meaning can be found.
It is Distant Sky and Skeleton Tree the two songs on the record that unveil a glimmer of acceptance, peace, and hope. A recreation of the pattern Julian Barnes talks about. Come to think of it, this is the astounding quality of Nick Cave’s work, the one aspect that stays the same in the midst of such horror: ‘The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds’, still. Both Distant Sky and Skeleton Tree, the last two tracks on the album, have a cathartic quality reminding one of the closing track Death is not the end on Murder Ballads. Their effect is purifying and with them, Skeleton Tree reveals a non-negotiable truth about grief: one must accept the unacceptable, the living have been separated from the dead and that is how they will remain. The dead must set out for the ‘distant skies / soon the children will be rising, will be rising / this is not for our eyes’ while the living are bound to come back to an earthly time, to an earthly life: ‘Sunday morning, skeleton tree / Oh, nothing is for free. I called out, I called out / Right across the sea / But the echo comes back in, dear / And nothing is for free’. The peacefulness, the confession ‘it’s alright now’ are deceiving. It’s a complex resolve the acceptance that the incessant call is a bridge that will never reach the other shore. This is the authority of grief. Make no mistake, this is what one must make peace with.
‘The death of a beloved is an amputation’, C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed. And then he goes on talking about exactly the same concept Nick Cave mentions in One more time with feeling the concept of time being elastic, of grief letting you out of its grip and snapping back at you arbitrarily. ‘For in grief nothing stays put’, C.S.Lewis explains. ‘One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. (…) How often — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, “I never realized my loss till this moment”? The same leg is cut off time after time.’ Julian Barnes writes in Levels of Life: ‘Grief becomes unimaginable: not just its length and depth, but its tone and texture, its deceptions and false dawns, its recidivism. Also, its initial shock: you have suddenly come down in the freezing German Ocean, equipped only with an absurd cork over jacket that is supposed to keep you alive’. And yet against all odds you are kept alive, you bleed internally, but you don’t die. The coup de grâce fails to arrive. In a way, the songs on this album are an attempt at putting soul parts back together, an attempt to undo reality, to shorten the distance between the living and the dead.
On Dig, Lazarus, Dig, my least favorite Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record, there is a song that goes like this: ‘well, I kept thinking about what the weatherman said / and if the voices of the living can be heard by the dead/ the day is gonna come when we find out / and in some kind of way I take a little comfort from that’. The fact that the attempt to reach the other side is futile, yet indispensable and necessary in the face of loss reveals only the delicacy and vulnerability of the human spirit. Every creative act is an attempt at order, at structure, it is an infusion of meaning against a canvas of random, chaotic events. But deeper than that it is evidence of the fact that longing for sense, for meaning is what defines man at his highest and lowest points. And like everything defining, sorrow too is a process and words and sounds and images are a way of bridging that which one cannot understand but must accept nonetheless. In the aforementioned lecture on the love song, Nick Cave states ‘words become the defining parameter that keeps the image of the loved one imprisoned in a bondage of poetry’. It is through language, but more than language, through expression that we can, if not tame the harshness of grief, then sing and by singing keep the loved one safe in our heart: ‘you’re still in me, I need you, in my heart, I need you’ and ‘with my voice, I am calling you’.
As for me, the meaning of this album, the meaning of these songs is not to be found in a strange pleasure of glimpsing into the core and grief of another, nor in medical curiosity towards the anatomy of suffering. It also does not come out of the desire to measure a personal map of grief against another. The attributes of grief are universal, while the individual experience is always personal. El muerto no es un muerto: es la muerte, Borges writes. But the living being, the one who stays behind trapped in a cage of flesh while the spirit of the beloved sets sail is an open wound that keeps existing. And this contrast in itself is absurd. The finite and the eternal come face to face resulting in absolute chaos. At the core of this album, we find precisely this wound, generated by the confrontation between man and death, man and life, man and God. I do not know if words simpler than ‘I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever‘ exist. Or if it is possible to hear the pain of someone’s absence louder than in Nick Cave’s voice reciting the lament ‘in love, in love, I love, you love, I laugh, you love / I move, you move, you move, you move, and one more time with feeling / I love, you love, I laugh, you love / we saw each other in half and all the stars have splashed and splattered ‘cross the ceiling’.
Love and death have always been central to Nick Cave’s work, as God has been. Going back to his moving lecture which was mentioned in the opening paragraph, I want to stress the following statement: ‘love songs come in many forms and are written for a host of reasons (…), but ultimately the love song exists to fill with language the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine’. It is exactly that what this album is ‘a prayer to the air, the air that we breathe’, while grief creeps in and the silence, the absence and the indifference echo.