What happens when a particular event dismantles the patterns of emotional response that come with age? One might take the long view like 2013's Push the Sky Away, where Nick Cave and company told a tale of humanity's ever present history as told by Wikipedia and Miley Cyrus. "I used to know how I would react to things," says Cave in One More Time with Feeling, the second Bad Seeds documentary in as many years. The death enveloping Skeleton Tree doesn't get in the way of his limitless sense of emotional elaboration.
But Cave needs to cope, and he does so here by projecting his music across the rings of Saturn, into the mist rolling off the sea, and into a bathroom mirror; vomit, blood and someone else's diseases on display. Grieving doesn't limit itself to places in a house or on a map. You recognize the person in the bathroom mirror although the person on the inside has been overhauled, and mundane tasks like standing in the supermarket queue become new and confusing. "Maybe I'm just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain," Cave sings on 'Rings of Saturn', where we catch him attempting normalcy with his loss painted across his face; which looks older and less familiar than it did before July of last year.
In this way, death also transcends people and places, ultimately fucking with time itself. Slide Bad Seeds cuts like 1997's 'Into My Arms' into the tracklist, and they breathe (or, in this case, "bleed") new tenderness into the album's portents. On 'Girl in Amber', we hear about 1984, the year the band debuted with From Her to Eternity. Cave's wife Susie Bick is this eternity, and he's giving her space for her equivalent grief. If Cave has changed his mind about his belief in an interventionist god, now's the time he may need its help.
The farthest time's icy hand gets from death is on 'Anthrocene', where Cave guides us, also in outer space, in search for new love. Drums sputter across formless piano chords and sonic errata. Angelic voices respond to Cave, who's finding it "hard to believe that we're falling now in the name of the Anthrocene;" a play on the word "Anthropocene," humanity's current geological period which has been fantastically reformed to fit Cave's notions of life, love, and loss. It's a follow up to Push the Sky Away's 'Higgs Boson Blues', where the volume of available information coalesces into a humorous void of beauty and near nihilism.
The elastic snaps back to the present on the following 'I Need You', where the album's most concentrated prose is found: "You're still in me, baby/I need you/Cause nothing really matters/when the one you love is gone." Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis balances looped space with thick gothic tones, making it hard to know exactly where the chorus fits in. The rest is ornately arranged - piano, vibraphone, bass, acoustic guitar, drums, and a commanding vocal that repeats itself in pained transcendence: "Nothing really matters" becoming a greater mantra of devotion than the sum of its words.
Skeleton Tree ends with fewer lyrics and abstractions on the peaceful 'Distant Sky', which suggests that there are still places to go and horizons to explore with your remaining family. Whether he's "down there" with the hard blues of 'Magneto', or "on the edge" of a dark force on 'Anthrocene', Cave's distant sky remains attainable despite the deceit he feels in the lies he's been told about the afterlife of his child. But he still rises on Sunday morning on the closing track, and has the gumption to claim that "It's alright now." Whether we want to explore grief or learn to live with it, Skeleton Tree provides a sagacious guidebook.