Nick Cave / Touché Amore / Blind Pilots – Review

30 Sep

Sadly, death is something we’ll all have to grapple with at some point. And yet very few songwriters ever engage with that particular misery on record. Perhaps it’s difficult to stare into that void long enough to articulate words. This month has seen the release of three records that do grapple with loss in strikingly different ways. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’, Touché Amore’s ‘Stage Four’ and Blind Pilots ‘And then Like Lions.’ These aren’t elegiac albums, rather the songwriters cast their eye over the mourning process, and struggle with processing loss whilst contemplating what has changed and what could possibly be gained. ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Stage Four’ are particularly moving. In their bravery, honesty and almost unprecedented originality, these are two of the most commendable records made this year.

‘Skeleton Tree’ is, on one hand, the fifteenth studio album in The Bad Seeds illustrious back catalogue and so brings with it certain expectations. It is however an entirely different, and singular, proposition once you know that it was recorded in the midst of overwhelming tragedy – the death of Cave’s son, Arthur. Upon learning this, you could almost snap the through-line from his other records, and isolate its as a one off. Even when the record doesn’t directly refer to Arthur’s passing, it seems haunted by it. Every syllable is inflicted with a deep sadness and a kind of longing. We hear it in clear cut phrases and cries that pierce the often cloudy, mysterious lyricism. We hear it in the droning guitars, the ghosts of noise that pulsate in and out of focus and the wails of sorrow from his fellow Bad Seeds that punctuate melodies.

In the film accompaniment ‘One More Time With Feeling’, there is a scene where Cave stares in to a mirror and only just notices the bags around his eyes. ‘They weren’t there last year’ he says. The musical changes are just as subtle. His piano playing seems less heavy handed and ominous. The arrangements aren’t as showy or bombastic. Even on lighter moments like ‘I Need You’ and ‘Distant Sky’, Cave’s voice sounds tired and weary. It cracks and barely bothers to find the gorgeous melodies.

All that said, work on the album was already well under way when the tragedy happened and its dark mood and minimalist aesthetic were therefore already well established. In fact, there is a natural evolution from Cave’s last record, the understated and pretty ‘Push the Sky Away.’ ‘Skeleton Tree’ takes that album’s taut lines and bends them to the floor, utilising drone techniques to heave the atmosphere down low. First single ‘Jesus Alone’ sets the mood and it doesn’t relent from then on in. Only gradually, in the record’s final two songs, does the mood start to alter. The temperature thaws, the instrumentation becomes less heavy and electronic. Ethereal voices, soothing piano chords and a steady beat feel something like hope after the journey we’ve been on. In the album’s final moments we have something like resolution.

The striking sentiment expressed on the final song of Nick Cave’s last studio album was that ‘you’ve got to just keep on pushing, push the sky away.’ The sky being the visual limit. “Push it ‘till it smashes”. Cave said you should smash through that ceiling when you think you’ve got everything. ‘Push the Sky Away’ was easily his most content sounding record but even in that relative joy, he sounded reluctant to commit, and skeptical. He sounded uncomfortable. On ‘Skeleton Tree’ Cave sounds much more in his element – even If the circumstances surrounding its making are truly devastating. His loss has allowed him to make the most necessary and quintessential album of his career. No longer imitating sadness through camp, sleaze or morbid curiosity, he’s now living and breathing it. The results are crushing.

They say there are seven stages to grief. There is a feeling that by the end of ‘Skeleton Tree’ Nick Cave has landed somewhere near grim acceptance. Touché Amore are significantly further back down the scale. Vocalist Jeremy Bolm flits between anger and shock as he grapples with guilt and the unresolved emotion connected to his mother’s slow death from cancer. His mother passed away as he stood on stage in a dirty club, performing with the band. ‘I was told that you wouldn’t have known / told myself I was where you’d want me to be / but it’s not that easy.’ Deciphering ‘Skeleton Tree’ is like walking through a wood on a foggy evening; you can’t see much but occasionally you catch yourself on a branch or bramble. On ‘Stage four’ you can see and feel the trees with crystal clarity and the branches are sharp to the touch.

If Cave is cryptic then Bolm Is blunt to a disarming degree. His lyrics are amplified by his anguished vocals; he shouts till he’s horse and only sings when the music can withstand nothing else. You can’t imagine a line like ‘I can’t worship the God that let her fall apart’ being delivered with anything but an angry howl. He describes the relationship with his mum, the guilt he feels at being away from her at key moments and he unpicks the process of mourning. He doesn’t spare us the finer details; he name checks places, songs, people and memories – anything to give the listener insight in to his grief. His delivery may be unabashed hardcore but the music that supports him is far less easy to pin down. It’s rooted in a punk and hardcore sensibility but the album opens with a beautiful post-rock passage. Elsewhere we hear echoes of post-punk, emo, shoegaze and metal. Generally, I’ve never heard punk music that’s so melodic at the same time as being so aggressive. It’s truly progressive stuff regardless of the brave subject matter.

Blind pilot’s ‘And Like Lions’ can’t help but sound naive in such outstanding company. The band’s lyricism is neither as vividly direct as Touché Amore nor as ambigous as Nick Cave’s. Instead these songs have a pretty but somewhat vague, ethereal nature that makes them difficult to fathom and pin down. These are songs that wash over you but they are not songs to get lost in. We are told they were informed by the death of singer Israel Nebeker’s father and the breakdown of his relationship; two devastating events that unfortunately coincided with one another. There is certainly a prevalent sadness that is hard to miss but Blind Pilot use bright chord changes and uplifting melodies to create something positively transformational and cathartic. Imagine the half way point between Fleet Foxes credible indie-folk and Mumford and Sons populist sing alongs and you have this album.

Blind Pilot convert tragedy in to something close to celebration through sheer will power, faith and resilience. Their final message is ‘And then we are like lions / we are golden in our hearts.’ Blind Pilots use myth, metaphor and natural imagery to distance themselves from tragedy whilst growing as people because of it. Nick Cave and Touché Amore are less willing to commit to a resolution so positive. ‘Skeleton Key’ and ‘Stage Four’ are nothing but unresolved reality. Cold, unflattering reality. There are no affectations or metaphors that will heal the wounds or bring them closer to acceptance. Both Cave and Touché Amore come to terms with loss in their own way but they won’t concede anything like having ‘golden hearts’. The cover of ‘Skeleton Tree’ is pitch black. ‘Stage Four’ is called that for a reason. These records are dark, difficult and unflinching – but that’s why they are so important.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds ‘Skeleton Tree’ – 9/10

Touché Amore ‘Stage Four’ – 9/10

Blind Pilots ‘And then like Lions’ – 6.5/10


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