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.
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.