Saturday, August 11, 2018

Skeleton Tree (2016)

Nick Cave has been a problem I've only worried infrequently and from a distance. I don't know the Birthday Party that well—everything I've ever heard has sounded generic to me within a narrow range of punk. Then his long Elvis / U.S. South phase with the Bad Seeds (from approximately The Firstborn Is Dead, and hitting a crashing crescendo with Murder Ballads) left me intrigued but usually unsatisfied. He seemed to have a head full of steam-powered notions, like Elvis as the slouching beast, but they never seemed to get traction. At least I found a new appreciation for the quiet in the original murder ballads—that's the power of them. Then, finally, as if learning the lesson himself, with The Boatman's Call Cave and band more latched on to something like a demented cross between lounge and hymnal music, with high-flown biblical language ("Into my arms, O Lord," "The ring is locked upon the finger," "It was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus," etc.) as he indulged spiritual yearnings in a suave, sinister, and somehow depraved context. It really works for me—maybe it's the widow's peak. At his best, Cave has an unaffected way of reaching back effortlessly to deepest cultural sources, like the Bible, for the most prized antiques. My favorite is No More Shall We Part, but others I've dipped into less intensely fit the bill too: The Boatman's Call, the double album Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus, and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! I never caught up with the 2013 Push the Sky Away and decided I wanted to check in again with the latest, from two years ago, which came in the wake of the accidental death of Cave's son. It sounds much like more of the same to me, for better or worse. It's supercharged on one level with a somber air of grief and yet Cave as the singer is distanced and calculated. He often sounds like he is reading poetry, or mumbling to himself. He and the music drift into fields of ambience as if losing trains of thought, a neatly done mimic of a mind temporarily unmoored by passing circumstances. At these points his skill at scoring movies also shows (Wind River, Hell or High Water, The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). At other times, as in "I Need You" (an iconic title he's renting from the Beatles, America, and LeAnn Rimes), the warbling position of faith could not be more clear or tender. An angel named Else Torp sits in on "Distant Sky." As for the Bad Seeds, it seems to be the second nature of Cave and these players to be nearly perfectly in synch after all this time playing together, notably Warren Ellis, cowriter with Cave of all these songs. The result might be classified as a slightly more literary version of Neil Young's Tonight's the Night. Not his best but worth a visit.

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