“Right across the sea / But the echo comes back empty / Nothing is for free. And it’s alright now.” – ‘Skeleton Tree’
On 14 July 2015, 15-year-old Arthur Cave plunged to his death, falling 60-feet off Ovingdean Gap, just a mile east of Brighton Marina. Apparently hallucinating on LSD, his final words were, “Where am I? Where Am I?” The coroner stated (according to The Guardian newspaper) that they couldn’t find any trace of LCD in Arthur’s body, but nevertheless a verdict of accidental death was reached.
Anyone who has lost a child in this way, who is still to reach their prime, must bear feelings of extreme trauma, mixed with guilt and deep questioning, and deal with an event that is profoundly life-changing. This is what Nick, and his wife, Suzi – along with Arthur’s twin brother Earl, and all their friends and family – have had to deal with. Since his death, this has all been largely played out in privacy. Until now.
Following Arthur’s death, Nick Cave approached Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik about making a film, as a way of promoting the album, which was still being made, without having to talk to the media, and explain away. In any case, parts of the media had done him and journalism a great disservice by heavily alluding to Cave’s own drug-taking past and playing up the sometimes violent imagery of his songs. The Times newspaper was censored for its headline, ‘Let your children feel fear, Cave urged before son’s death’, taking its cue from an interview he had just given to the rather unfortunately titled Australian literary magazine Kill Your Darlings (itself taken from a phrase by writer William Faulkner in relation to being ruthless in self-editing) in which he said he found the experience of watching children experience fear ‘moving’.
What has transpired is a largely black and white, 2D and 3D document of Skeleton Tree. Dominik had previously directed Chopper, Killing Them Softly and the Oscar nominated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; the later film scored by Nick Cave and long-term musical partner Warren Ellis. But, what began on paper as a performance-based film, quickly evolved into something a great deal more complex, and improvised, as Cave decided to let the cameras roll, and open up about his son’s death.
One More Time With Feeling (a line from one of the songs featured, and a playful musical clique often invoked by musicians in trying to capture the essence of a song) has at its centre the death of Arthur Cave, with Nick Cave airing his raw grief, sometimes in the back of a cab, sometimes off-camera, and at other times sitting at his desk, whilst there are studio-based performances of almost all the tracks on Skeleton Tree, an album that inevitably became to mean something very different from the original premise. There are also off-camera Cave voiceovers, about his wife (one of the few humorous episodes has Cave talking about how his wife likes to rearrange the furniture, usually when he is out or asleep), thoughts on his songwriting process and philosophy, about ageing, about superstitions, along with a number of his spoken word poems dotted throughout the film. Cave’s wife also appears a few times, while Arthur’s twin, Earl, makes an appearance (visiting his studio with his mum), talking music and film, and participating in some deeply loving exchanges with both parents.
In the hands of Dominik, it all segues into one long piece of documentary art that is utterly riveting and imaginatively done. It is also at times sad and uncomfortable to watch, but we see Cave display a perhaps uncommon strength, a hard-work ethic, and practical philosophical outlook in dealing with the death of his son; whilst at the same time documenting his belief that he thinks he’s losing his voice, his judgement, his memory and his looks as a result of his loss. It’s taken a huge toll on him, everything seemingly taking a bigger-than-before effort on his part, including that of his creativity: “The imagination needs room to move, to invent and to dream. And when a trauma happens that is that big, there’s no room. There’s just fucking trauma.”
“Things have been torn apart and I’m desperately trying to find a way of making narrative sense of it, if we’re talking about songwriting,” says Cave. “I can do what it says in the books, or what people say to me, that I can reduce. and distill this chaotic mess down into a platitude that I can fit nicely into. a greeting card-sized platitude that means something to me, like ‘he lives in my heart’ or something like that. But he doesn’t; he doesn’t live in my heart. He doesn’t live at all. I want to be able to round it all off, but. it’s affected me in a way I don’t understand. I used to be able to predict what I would feel at certain times but now I don’t have any handle on things anymore. It’s frightening. Like I don’t know why I’m fucking here now, for example. Why I’m sitting here with a camera. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that before.”
It is perhaps for some, unsettling to see that both Nick and Suzi Cave are prepared to air their grief in front of a film crew despite events being so very raw; to be so public about personal events, epitomised when Suzi produces a painting by Arthur, when he was about five, a painting of the windmill and the cliff where he actually lost his life. And to be actually watching this in a cinema, in Brighton Marina, just a few hundred metres from where it happened, and just a few hundred metres from the Caves’ family home.
Having his world turned upside down, and with filming taking place just a few months after the death of Arthur, Cave comes across as uncertain about some things. Moreover, there are no names in the subtitles, and the context is barely explained; there is nothing here to tell us when things happened; Arthur’s name is not even mentioned until halfway through the film. We do know, however, that he still needs to work, to make his music, an on-going and necessary artistic pursuit. And, as is the artist’s way, he has allowed a film crew into the inner sanctum, (albeit one headed by someone he knew and had previously worked with, and therefore trusted) to document this anguish and uncertainty, reflected for much of the film in the dark, melancholic, stripped back, yet ultimately spiritual musical core of Cave and his band.
Cave’s music has been consistently outstanding since he formed the darkly visceral, intelligent and noisy post-punk band The Birthday Party in the late 70s, moving from Melbourne to London in 1980, in search of an audience that would be more appreciative of the music and lyrics therein. By 2013’s Push The Sky Away, Cave & The Bad Seeds were generating a stately eeriness via minimalist textures and melodies; full of tenderness and vulnerability, within its dark and moody centre.
The Skeleton Tree is an extension of Push The Sky Away, and is even more minimalist and eerie sounding. Whether it was intended to be from the outset is not clear, but this time (and for the very first time in Cave’s career) it was recorded all ‘live’ in the studio, with overdubs allowed only where necessary. A method that, as Cave attests, was out of his comfort zone, while he himself was out-of-sync with life in general: “When we talk about the prophetic nature (of his songs) we have to take that with a pinch of salt. On one level I don’t really care about their prophetic nature; they aren’t important enough. But, the way they’ve been presented, the way you hear them on this record, it’s very much because of the emotional state. I think the state we were all in gave us the confidence to let it go out like it was, which we wouldn’t have done if events were different. We would have fixed things up, re-done this.
“Most of us don’t want to change. Why should we,” says Cave in the film. “What we want to do is modify. What we do want is modifications on the original model. But what happens when events are so catastrophic that you just change from one day to the next. You change from the known person to the unknown person. When you go outside, the world is the same, but now you are a different person, renegotiating your position in the world. For instance, when you go into a shop to get cigarettes, because this new version of yourself smokes, and the shop owner says ‘how are you’ and you don’t know how to answer. or when you meet a friend on the street. you are meeting a friend you actually don’t know very well.”
While many of the lyrics were written before the death of Arthur, the Skeleton Tree can be read, in part, as an emotional response to this tragedy, a work of raw-to-the-bone art that is a mixture of reaching out for love, dealing with loss and visceral ruminations on his tiny little place in the grand scheme of things. It’s an emotional rescue kind of album that features the usual outstanding, if more fragile, vocal performances of Cave. But this time the performances are even more intense and honest than usual, his lyrics less shrouded in metaphors rich and obscured. Here, Cave lets it all hang out, not only eschewing his usual voice strengthening techniques, but also deciding against tidying things up in post-production, or fine-tuning his words. You can hear the pain and the anxiety in his voice, complimented beautifully by The Bad Seeds’ minimalist musical footprint, led by Warren Ellis, Cave’s musical partner. “I think it’s the nature of songs to have an insight into things we don’t consciously have because largely they are from the unconscious,” says Cave, “which is a kind of reservoir of knowledge and understanding which is far beyond what we are consciously aware of.”
As an artistic device in itself, the film sometimes compliments this uncertainty, via the raw outpourings of Cave at the mic, his off-camera poems, the dream-like filmic atmosphere in places, the interjected shots of Brighton’s West and Palace piers and Arthur’s bedroom. A filmic style that brings studio voices in and out of the mix, visually and audibly focussing and re-focusing on certain aspects of a scene, relocating the human eye much more accurately than a conventional 2D film does. One More Time With Feeling is dream-like to a degree – partly because we aren’t used to seeing things like this in a cinema – as it attempts to represent the sometimes claustrophobic, noisy atmospheres of our lives, where we are often having to filter out what we do and what we don’t want to hear or see in order to be able to see and hear more clearly.” I don’t believe in the narrative anymore,” says Cave about his new approach to songwriting. “I don’t actually believe that is what life is like. I just feel that to do a fractured narrative, a thing where time is compressed, events are stuck on top of other events, there is no particular logic to them. It’s much more real, and true to the way I feel about things.
“To a fault I have a thing about words,” Cave further explains later in the film, “a love and respect about words, but a kind of fear about words, of where they can take you, and what they can expose. That’s what makes the world go around. Because of that power of words I’ve kept them contained. In my opinion, I don’t let a line go that I’m not really pleased with. But this record, I have to let go of that, because the line is successful for another reason.”
And all along, there are lines and passages that, with the benefit of hindsight, are by turns disturbing, sad, brave and brutally honest. “You turn, you turn, you kneel, lace up his shoes, your little blue-eyed boy / Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall / I get lucky I get lucky ’cause I tried again / I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone / I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber until you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / Well I don’t think that anymore, the phone it rings no more” he sings mournfully on ‘Girl in Amber’, his voice sounding particularly old, akin to Johnny Cash on his latter-day American series.
Elsewhere there are ‘love’ songs about his wife, despite the intersecting metaphors, such as ‘Rings of Saturn’, while ‘I Need You’ says it all in the title, an outpouring of plain and simple need for someone. ‘Distant Sky’ is conversely more tender, possessing an eerie calm, helped along by the guest vocal of Danish soprano Else Torp, and is about immortal love: “They told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied,” sings Cave is his inimitably raging fashion. There’s also the primal musical equivalent of deep breathing, on the angry-love of ‘Magneto’, the imaginatively propulsive ‘Anthrocene’ and the album opener, the effects-driven, string-infused and spine-tingling ‘Jesus Alone’, Cave’s voice upfront and personal, displaying his usual high level of enunciation. “I don’t want to write songs like a diary. I’m not interested in that. I want to write songs that radiate out, that connect with people and don’t alienate people,” Cave says.
The Skelton Tree will always be known as the album that was being made when his son tragically died, and documented for posterity as One More Time With Feeling, a film that will magnify the album’s significance and context. A raw, sometimes angry, but mostly deeply sad work, it is also an extremely humane and brave album, with both the album and film revealing Cave’s frailties, uncertainties, anxieties and emotional struggles. Because events were so real, and because they were so shocking, Skeleton Tree speaks from the inner soul like no other Cave record, even if he is at times sounding almost numb from pain, literally pleading for some love and some meaning to help ease the anguish. Moreover, Cave offers up little in the way of blatant emotional salvation, of finding peace, except in trying to shrug it off as something inevitable, and ultimately deal-able. “It’s this stuff I’m saying now, it sounds like a lot of bullshit to me. It may mean something but in the end it was something that happened, and there’s a kind of a ring around that event. It’s fenced off, and everything else is OK around it, but there’s something that happened in that short space of time that we can never get that far away from. Time is elastic, we’re attached to this thing, and we move away like a rubber band, and life can go on. But eventually it just keeps coming back to that thing. That’s some kind of trauma, I guess.”
“Everytime I try and articulate, it does him a disservice. It happened to us, but it happened to him. Everything is not OK, but it is OK. Things go on, and if anyone’s interested, the records go on, the work goes on.”
And Arthur Cave’s memory will live on. Just when you think the film is over, there appears suddenly an almost unbearably sad finale, over the closing credits; his voice and with his father on piano, delivering a lo-fi but respectable recording of Marianne Faithful’s ‘Still Waters’.