When we woke up to the news on a Monday morning last January that David Bowie had died, his final album had barely hit the shops. We shared a solitary weekend; revelling in an unexpected return to form, wondering – if not truly believing – whether he might even hit the road once more. But from the moment we heard he was gone, we were listening to Blackstar again, not as an album but as a farewell, a self-eulogy. We surmised, no, we knew that a terminally ill David Bowie had penned and recorded this album as his parting gift.
Of course, Bowie’s long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, the man who initially called Blackstar a “parting gift,” eventually took a step back from any literal interpretations. It was, in fact, recorded at a time when Bowie was in remission from his illness. There’s no denying that mortality was an almost-physical presence in Bowie’s life during its creation, nor would it be a wild claim to suggest that he had an acute awareness that time perhaps was not on his side, but, ultimately, Blackstar really was what we thought it to be when we first played it on his 69th birthday: a legend of contemporary music finding his mojo. We filled in the rest.
I’m talking about this because in the last few hours I have watched One More Time With Feeling and listened to Skeleton Tree, the latter being the sixteenth and brand new studio album from alternative rock icons Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, with the former being a 3D documentary film released to promote it. The stark, and awful, truth is that last year Nick Cave finally made his first foray into mainstream attention for years, but the reason wasn’t to do with music, but the tragic death of his 15-year old son Arthur. Headlines were written, photographs were taken, The Times newspaper made headlines of their own for implying youth Arthur’s passing was linked to Cave’s reputation as a songwriter “obsessed with death and violence.” So although it has been made abundantly clear that the majority of Skeleton Tree was born prior to the tragic event, this album is still defined by it. Arthur and his memory breathe on every track. Again, we’re filling in the blanks.
Nick Cave is, in reality, a quiet, intensely private Australian man who hides behind a fictional namesake akin to a ghost from the American Civil War who has possessed a particularly well-dressed goth. In One More Time With Feeling, which – unlike the album it promotes – discusses the loss of his son, we are left with a picture of hopelessness and despondency. Visceral and distant, yet deeply imbued with beauty and love, Nick Cave – perhaps intentionally – lets the mask slip, and you find yourself staring at that ageing Australian, barely keeping things together now that his life, and all those around him, have been turned inside-out so brutally. Skeleton Tree, regardless of the when’s and where’s and why’s, will always be the album in which we saw the real Nick Cave. And that’s why it will be a difficult album to grasp: uncomfortable, even painful, but utterly indispensable.
I will review the album properly in due course.