Nick Cave was deep into recording his sixteenth studio album when, on July 14, 2015, his 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a cliff near the family home in Brighton.
The extent to which the tragedy has shaped new album Skeleton Tree is unclear: is it truly possible to channel parental grief into something so trivial as a rock song? Should one even try? Or is the braver response to stoically carry on before — for the singer to honour his child by making just another Nick Cave record?
Cave was very clear about one thing, however. The album would be listened to and scrutinised in the context of his son’s death. Which is why, late in 2015, he asked director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to shoot a documentary about his final months in the studio, as he simultaneously processed the tragedy and completed Skeleton Tree. This would be his only statement regarding the album and his son’s death (there will be no follow-up interviews).
Once More With Feeling was screened around the world on Thursday, on the eve of the release of Skeleton Tree. As both primer for the accompanying LP and exploration of the numb turmoil of the newly bereaved it is a triumph, even if Cave is understandably reluctant to delve too far into the particulars of his son’s passing.
Initially he struggles to even directly reference the death, which he refers to as the “trauma”. Captured by Dominik’s dispassionate, black and white camera we watch Cave tinkering in the studio, exchanging droll one-liners with his long-term collaborator Warren Ellis.
When he does begin to open up — and even then in highly elliptical terms — Cave sounds like a visitor from a foreign country. If you have never lost a child nothing he can say can convey his feelings (and if you have, what need for words?) .“What happened to my face?” he says a one point. “Look at these bags under my eyes. Where did they come from? They weren’t here last year.”
Such quiet turmoil is largely absent from Skeleton Tree which, outside the context of recent events, really does sound like just another Cave record.
There are loud jagged pieces (opener ‘Jesus Alone’), plaintive piano creepers (‘Magneto’) and gothic laments (‘Distant Sky’). The facade cracks just once, on the slow, flailing ‘Girl In Amber’: “I knew the world would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone,” he whispers. “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world… well I don’t think that any more.”