Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree and One More Time With Feeling
Album and film provide a devastating meditation on death
What happens if a trauma occurs to an individual which is so shocking, so absolute, that it changes their entire being from one day to the next? That they don't recognise who they are or how they'll react to any familiar situation, and everything has to be experienced anew as the person they've now become? Nick Cave no longer knows who he is. Through the static he hears a voice in the grocery shop murmur 'we're with you, man', and feels all eyes on him. He doesn't understand when he became an object of pity.
One More Time With Feeling concerns itself with all of the above, and more. Screening in cinemas to accompany the release of Cave's 16th album Skeleton Tree, it's a musical 'making of' film which embraces some conventions and must firmly reject others. Shot in gorgeous, monochromatic 3D by New Zealand-born filmmaker Andrew Dominik (most famous for cult crime thriller Chopper and the Brad Pitt-starring diptych The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly), its attraction as a musical document is second to the dark compulsion towards the human story behind the album; that Cave's 15 year old son Arthur accidentally fell to his death during the recording of it.
Mostly, we see Cave in interview close-up in his Brighton home, or in the studio, rarely away from his piano, gently caressing the keys until his muse builds and another performance comes. In this grand old church hall, the companionship of his fellow Bad Seeds is palpable, particularly shamanically-bearded violinist and arranger Warren Ellis – 'Woz' to the staff – who Cave has collaborated with for more than two decades. Warmth and humour emerge here, with Ellis jokily complimenting Cave's hair before a take ('proceed with absolute confidence') and Cave, with a smile, telling Jim Sclavunos his new beard will mess with the film's continuity. 'Fuck continuity,' Sclavunos smiles back. 'Fuck continuity…' Cave repeats, mind clearly drawn to other matters for the thousandth time that day.
For Cave and his family, continuity is no longer an option. The film cuts away to home life in their Brighton townhouse, and Cave's wife, the former model and fashion designer Susie Bick, emerges as a lead character in this film, as she must. A person of remarkable poise and beauty, her emotions are reserved even from Cave, but from her grows a real (and with hindsight obvious) sense that the only thing worse than a father losing a child is a mother losing a child. The couple silently struggle to hold it together while showing the camera a painting Arthur made of the landscape where he died, made when he was five. Like Cave, she throws herself into her work as a blessed distraction.
The music on the album – all played in as glorious a sonic format as may be hoped for on the film – doesn't vary in mood; a slow, punchdrunk, almost medicated struggle for understanding, with occasional sharp peaks of pain and acceptance bursting through. One of the many more resonant aspects here is in Cave's relationship with women, obviously personified by his wife. Known for a style of songwriting which fuses the confessionally romantic with the darkly sexual, he makes the point in the film that his usually more considered responses have to be submerged on this album to find something more resonantly honest. As he says openly in the film and alludes to on the record, his admiration for his wife is all-encompassing, as is his wonder at the three-dimensionality of her emotions; he feels plain and dull by comparison.
Each of the album's eight songs are reserved in their arrangement, sober in their execution, and unflinching in their honesty. Many may struggle to go on after 'I Need You', however; to not play this emotional and thematic centrepiece of the record again and again, and absorb its nuances. Over an icy synthesiser line and a languid drum beat, Cave addresses a female companion 'standing in the supermarket … in your red dress / failing in the long black cars waiting round'; 'I'll miss you when you're gone forever,' he pines, 'because nothing really matters … I need you.' The lyric, clearly, is about taking his wife to the funeral of their child and imagining the day she might leave him too, and just the memory of the song draws tears.
The album was trailed by 'Jesus Alone', and its foreboding bed of electronic fuzz underpins the closest the record gets to anger, right at the beginning. 'You're a distant memory in the mind of your creator … with my voice, I am calling you,' he growls in his merciless baritone, as though demanding answers be forthcoming now. By the third track, 'Girl in Amber', acceptance is dawning through the agony; 'if you wanna bleed, just bleed … ' he sings, while remembering 'you kneel, you lace up your shoes, you little blue-eyed boy.' Danish soprano Else Torp takes the lead on 'Distant Sky', on lines which seem even too painful for Cave: 'let us go now, my darling companion / set out for now, the distant skies / see the sun now, rising in your eyes.' Cave gamely joins in: 'they told us our gods would outlive us / they told us our dreams would outlive us … but they lied.'
On screen there's something of an air of high-value fashion commercial to the shots, but this works incredibly well when documenting such deep and impossible-to-perform emotions. On first experience, at least, both One More Time With Feeling and Skeleton Tree are both masterpieces of the most accidental and unwelcome sort, just as the latter is taken to new heights by its confrontation of the tragedy surrounding it, much like David Bowie's Blackstar. At one point in the film, Cave and Dominik both express reservations about why they're making it, but what they've created feels essential far beyond the bounds of Cave's fame, as both an acute study of grief in action and a definitive meditation on death and the creative process in the face of a universe and an eternity which will never know he or Arthur existed.
Cave's own epiphany is overwhelmingly powerful; that his brief spark of consciousness, the short narrative we manage to bring together before we die, is worth more than all of that universe and that eternity put together. It's not as beautiful, however, as the snatched shot where Arthur's twin brother Earl places his hand gently on his mother's head as they walk into the studio together, his smile full of life and hope, and none of the sadness which now hangs over his parents.
Skeleton Tree is out now on Bad Seed Ltd. One More Time With Feeling is screening at selected cinemas until Sun 11 Sep.