We usually think of exploration as positive: adventurers, dreamers, alchemists searching for immortality, identity, and meaning. Nick Cave’s 16th studio album Skeleton Tree and its accompanying documentary One More Time With Feeling are not this kind of exploration. Released back-to-back in early September, they are instead a heart-rending look at the aftermath of a great trauma. “What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change,” Nick Cave asks in one of the voiceover interviews as the camera pans across a studio swelling with Warren Ellis’ haunting violins.
Directed by Andrew Dominik, who Cave worked with on The Assassination of Jesse James, One More Time With Feeling is as textured as a Bad Seeds album. It weaves together footage of recording at London’s Air Studios, interviews, improvised conversations, and even voiceover narration recorded later on Cave’s iPhone. “A unique one-night-only cinema event,” said the promotional material. Its uniqueness is multifold: as reviews of the film and album emerge, what it is that’s being “reviewed” becomes muddy, or hard to focus on. Sometimes it is the music, judged either against the current landscape or against Cave’s discography. Sometimes it is the film, whose cinematic style lacks — as grief does — a linear structure. (“I don’t actually believe that is what life is like, that there is a pleasing narrative,” Cave says during the film, referencing both his lyrical departure from songs like John Finn’s Wife and his own experience.) And sometimes, what is being reviewed is a man’s response to grief, casting a spotlight on our culture’s appetite for other people’s emotions and on the way pain and inspiration chase each other through the endless rooms of art’s house.
I’m reminded of The Secret Life of the Love Song, a lecture Cave gave on the love song’s purpose and relevance: “Midst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centered around an attempt to articulate the nature of an almost palpable sense of loss that has laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was nineteen years old. The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write. My father taught me this as if to prepare me for his own passing. […] I found that language became a poultice to the wounds incurred by the death of my father. Language became a salve to longing.”
All of Skeleton Tree’s songs are about loss, which by Cave’s definition makes them also about love, as “within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.” At the same time, there is a constant fear that the suffering will reach its capacity and not stop — that the sorrow will refuse sublimation. “I think I’m losing my voice,” Cave worries in the film. “I’m sawn in half and all the stars are splashed across the ceiling,” he mutters on the album. Together, the two pieces are both a window into the creative process and a metaphor for it. Nowhere in the film does Cave (or anyone else) mention exactly what happened; exactly what this is all about. No song here is about the loss of a child; many were, in fact, written before the summer of 2015. Yet Cave’s very real grief is unmistakeable.
One More Time With Feeling’s intent is partly to avoid the inevitable interviews that come with an album’s release — to avoid the performance of grief anew for each reporter. Throughout his decades-long career, Cave has time and time again shown us the rawness of his heart; never has he shirked pain. My most-loved musician for over fifteen years, he has walked me with his words through love and loss and hope. His words have also been pinned like specimens against the stages of his own life: The Boatman’s Call is said to be about his brief romance with PJ Harvey; the bleak strength with which he now performs West Country Girl contrasted with the gentle melancholy of the album version. Nocturama was declared “too happy,” his marriage to Susie Bick brought up as fans wondered whether stability would stamp out Cave’s fire or keep it safely kindled — and then wondered what sort of cruelty it was to keep our artists chained to tragedy because we’ve decided art requires it.
“What’s the difference between somebody creating a portrait of a person going through an extraordinary experience, and at what point is it a little bit off, like grief porn,” asks Dominik in an interview with Anne Thompson for IndieWire, gazing at the sad solar system where Cave creates around his pain and Dominik creates around Cave and we stare up with our telescope to judge the brightness. Are we sufficiently in awe? One reviewer called One More Time With Feeling “indulgent but gorgeous,” which is a strange thing to say about grief and a telling thing to say about grief’s mandatory public performance: Don’t be happy. But don’t be too sad. Make your sadness relatable. Make it digestible. “It just felt like the same thing cut-and-pasted: song, cut to Nick saying something without actually acknowledging that his son died, some out-of-focus shots, song, cut to Nick saying something, so on, so forth,” a commenter writes on Facebook. “They told us our gods would outlive us / but they lied,” sings Cave.
Darker With The Day, a song off 2001’s And No More Shall We Part, is a beautiful depiction of longing towards the end of the album: “Babe, it seems so long since you’ve been gone, since you went away. And I hope, and I pray… But it grows darker with the day.” Skeleton Tree’s longing is rougher, more intense: “I’m begging you to please come home now.” In the 31 years of the Bad Seeds’ career Cave’s lyrics have taken us across a landscape that’s known lush springs and bitter winters and a life that’s seen births and deaths. There must be a kindness there, in following an artist as he travels. An allowance for happy songs, and sad songs. An allowance for exploration. Skeleton Tree is an incredible album, and One More Time With Feeling a gut-wrenching film, but beyond that they let us bear witness and hold space for Cave’s sorrow as the sun continues to set and rise and set and rise. The album’s final lines? “And it’s alright now,” repeated until all sound fades.