As Josh Cooper (Roadkill Records/Terminal Gods) is keen to remind me, I slated David Bowie’s Blackstar within hours of its release. I simply didn’t get the point. Within days (and Bowie’s subsequent death) I had done a complete U-Turn and was happily telling the world that it was the greatest work of genius ever conceived.
Unlike with Blackstar, we go into Skeleton Tree forearmed and forewarned of the momentous event informing the context of the work. And – with that in mind – I’ve come away with mixed feelings. It was a beautifully made piece of art and I learned a lot about Nick Cave from it, but it also clarified a few things about his modern incarnation that I don’t really like at all.
Firstly, he makes clear his abandonment of the traditional narrative as a way of relating to the world. He’s grown out of it. He’s older, wiser and more grounded and doesn’t need to fantasise about being a no-good gunslinger to communicate his identity to the world. Weirdly, and somewhat perversely, he’s filled the gaping hole this opened in his work up by turning his real self into a construct, a character. This is a process we saw clearly in the heavily scripted and carefully contrived 20,000 Days On Earth and although Skeleton Tree is a darker, more intimate affair it follows the precedent closely.
Following on from this, he’s evidently found new excitement in capturing “realness” – whether in the performances or the words themselves (he openly admitted resurrecting old, previously abandoned lyrics that barely made sense at the time of writing). It’s all very admirable and a direct reference to the jazz influences that have always simmered quietly underneath the Bad Seeds, but if this film proved anything it’s that he’s perfectly willing to fabricate something as fictitious and contrived as any of his old narrative pieces and pass it off as intimate and real.
A key part of the film was how you could always see, hear or sense the film crew in each shot. It was incredibly involving and personal, like an unguarded home video. But it wasn’t careless – it was precise. Beautiful and amazingly clever, but not unguarded at all. The opening scene sees Nick Cave mocking the crew for not being able to use their new black and white 3D camera, but by the end of the film we’re seeing a breathtakingly perfect, larger than life 3d performance as if they were playing just for us, and us alone.
People are going to lap this up because it makes them feel special. Nick Cave engineers sensation in the audience by which you can personally relate to his genius, empathise with his pain. The film achieves the double whammy of putting Cave ever higher on a pedestal and also congratulating the audience on how great they are by being able to be there with him. It has an almost religious fervour to it, which glorifies the worshiper as much as the worshipped.
It’s a sharp contrast from the younger Nick Cave that denigrated himself into a villain and relegated the audience into disposable extras in an apocalyptic musical nightmare world. Warren Ellis comes off as a creative, likeable and vital cornerstone of current Bad Seeds line up, but sometimes I miss the Blixa Bargeldian sense of danger present in Bad Seeds past.
Overall I’d give both the film and album a 10 out 10 for form and construct. It’s stunningly beautiful and exquisitely produced. None-the-less I wouldn’t be so generous with the content itself, which occasionally comes across as cynical. It’s a brave move by Nick Cave, replacing his ubiquitous American Gothic anti-hero with…. himself. For the chin stroking BBC 6 Music “mature” audience its going to be like crack cocaine, but for me… I *liked* the stupid fictions of his past work, rather more than the clever fictions he’s producing now.
NB: This review is the opinion of one half of the Heavy Leather editorial team. After listening to Skeleton Tree, Robert Cowlin came away with a rather different set of impressions, which you will hopefully read here first, or follow us on facebook for the inevitable flame war in the comments section…