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Nick Cave: One More Time with Feeling/Skeleton Tree review

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It’s been just over a year since the “incident” — the tragic death of Nick Cave’s son, Arthur. The new Bad Seeds album, Skeleton Tree has now been released with a new Cave film One More Time with Feeling (directed  by Andrew Dominik) that documents the grief of Cave and his wife Susie Bick and is accompanied by the music from the album.

When you first listen to Skeleton Tree, the music feels much like a collection of extensions and outtakes to their last album from 2013, Push the Sky Away, rather than a new album in all its glory.

Warren Ellis (violin, guitar, keys) has clearly held the band together during the dark days, and you get the feeling that he has pushed Cave to continue, (they had already started work and got a chunk done before Arthur’s death’), as a means of therapy and distraction, as much as anything else.

But One More Time With Feeling mostly works, if that’s the right word, as a study in loss and grieving. The music from Skeleton Tree is the frame around which it sits, but the real story is in the emotions that are etched into the on-screeen participants’ every action.

It’s hard not to feel prurient, pervy even, as many of the layers of mystique that the Nick Cave phenomenon has perpetuated, are peeled away. It’s so much more personal than anything he has ever done before, and tracks a major (if possibly temporary) change in the man himself.

You notice the physical changes to Cave wrought by stress and torment. Bags suddenly appear under his eyes and don’t retreat and he is red eyed and teary during most of the interview pieces.

As he speaks, Cave notes the change in his confidence and his usual ability to be articulate the complex begins to crumble. It shows in his singing too; the voice which has grown steadily less menacing and warmer over the last few releases, is now hesitant, cracked and raw.

Over the years Cave’s colleagues that noted that Cave is one of the wittiest, funniest people around but that aspect of his personality has rarely been allowed to peek through. Here, there are real glimpses of Nick Cave the person, not the legend, interacting with his son Earl (Arthur’s twin), Bick and the band.

The documentary is built around several interwoven sections: filmed versions of the songs done in a lovely studio space; interviews with Cave, Ellis and Bick (done mainly post the rest of the filming) and tracking shots of them and the band members in Cave’s “everyday” life.  During these Cave’s voice is heard in voiceover as he reads notes and lyrics from his workbook.  They are Blake-like, the ever-present obsessions with good, evil and god are highlighted by this tragedy.

One More Time with Feeling is a gut-wrenching journey and you can’t help but be drawn into empathising with the all too obvious agonies with which its participants are struggling. It’s understated in that British way of dealing with heartache, and some of the most powerful sections are when Cave and Bick appear to be on the verge of breaking down.

The film is a deep view into another’s response to overwhelming personal tragedy and it’s disturbing to watch. It’s hard not to feel like you’re witnessing far too private moments, even if the participants are aware, willing and quite adept at articulating this dichotomy.

I guess I have to ask myself whether it’s this myth dissolution that underlies my disappointment in the music. Maybe we don’t want Cave to be real but continue to be the firebrand, drug-fuelled challenger when the reality is that for years he’s been moving from iconoclast to cultural icon.

The Guardian has already called Skeleton Tree a masterpiece — but I’m not so sure. It feels as if the band members are all so flummoxed by shock that their creativity and passion has been subsumed into grief and that has left Warren Ellis shouldering too much of the load musically – it feel as if something is missing.

6 responses to “Nick Cave: One More Time with Feeling/Skeleton Tree review

  1. I’ve been listening to this album most days since it came out because while I initially thought it was ok, I also suspected that it’s a grower. It is. I’ve since found myself quietly singing phrases and snatches from it and then need to put it on once more. It’s different to the other work – though with definite echoes of Push the sky away – but has a vulnerability that I’ve never seen before

  2. I found ‘One More Time With Feeling’ a most personal and revealing film. And courageous. I’ve lost a child, far too early in his life and mine (it runs counter to nature to outlive one’s children) and for me, the words that Nick Cave spoke of how he ought have prepared his voice more for the recording of Skeleton Tree brought me to sobs in the packed cinema. I too once sang with beloved friends and it took years, over a decade, before I could sing to anyone apart from my second born son. I identified with Susie Cave’s shy musings, her superstition of Nick’s songs. I know one of my favourite albums by him ‘The First Born is Dead’ ran through my mind countless times after my son’s death. And together, the Cave family’s frailty is overwhelming. This is what the depth of grief is about. I can’t understand any rejection of Nick’s voice. I know that critics live to report im/perfection, however life is not perfect or absolute. Gods fall away as such experiences arrive at one’s doorstep. And for this reason alone, Skeleton Tree is all the more powerful. It shows the courage, the role that such artists must summon at the most bereft of times. Artists are oft regarded as gods – Australians seem to have a fascination with this concept – when instead all we are is human beings who struggle all the harder to distill and make sense of the life around us; the maelstrom that is grief, is death, is shallowness of perception. My 88 year old mother asked me of this film and album from her hospital bed. She has always said what a beautiful songwriter and vocalist Nick is. When I told her of how he is conscious of his voice being so frail, her response was: this is what is to be expected when one loses a child. And she is no stranger to grief or loss. The critics who judge Skeleton Tree harshly are not part of life. They are but looking through the glass, only cherry-picking the images that suit them. On the up side, the depth of friendship and support from Warren Ellis; the gently irreverent humour of Nick and his interactions of tenderness with his wife and son Earl are astonishing to witness. These will forever colour Skeleton Tree and make it one of those most precious of albums to listen to in my collection of music. For it is full of life. Just at the penumbra of grief. I hope all those who judge this album look deeply at themselves and consider how hard it is to lift oneself into a supermarket for a daily shop when finding zero meaning to live, except through the love of one’s partner, family and work. I would never wish such bereavement upon anyone. I am thankful for what the Cave family permitted in the production of the film and making of Skeleton Tree, if only that it may free them of some of the pain they are suffering, act as a marker in the road of healing. And celebrate life to the fullest.

  3. What’s missing was creative space. Cave said it himself. The creative space needed to make something like an album is rather large. Arthur’s death and it’s reverberations are were so enormous, it left him with little of that precious space.

    The album isn’t my favorite (though a few tracks stand out), as some of the songs just feel like they just didn’t have their hearts in it. I can understand why.

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