“What happens when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change? You change from the known person to an unknown person. So that when you look at yourself in the mirror, you recognise the person that you were but the person inside the skin is a different person.”
This is Nick Cave talking about the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, who fell, last July, from cliffs near the family’s home in Brighton. The question is at the heart of a new documentary, “One More Time With Feeling”, directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous films include “The Assassination of Jesse James”, for which Cave co-wrote the music. It has been released simultaneously with a new album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “Skeleton Tree”. The footage, interspersed with interviews, tracks Cave during the recording of the album as he circles his bereavement and finally comes face to face with it.
Cave initiated and participated in the film partly to avoid having to give interviews about the album. Whatever relief it has afforded him may be shared, in a very small way, by any journalist spared the awkward task of asking him about his loss. Watching Cave’s anguish is harrowing, his fearsome articulacy often faltering beneath its weight. Shot in high-contrast, 3D black and white, the film’s effect is expressionistic, its subjects resembling looming sculptures. Cave grumbles that Dominik has told him he looks like a “battered monument”. Yet the film has humour too, including musicians’ in-jokes and scenes that would normally be out-takes. It jumbles time and space, rejecting linear chronology. The fractures in the surface of the film, and the fissures beneath it, reflect Cave’s own changed views on art and life. Once, he says, he thought “songs held everything together. But I don’t believe in the narrative any more.”
This is not the first time a convulsion has transformed his music. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds emerged from the rubble of London-based Australian post-punk act The Birthday Party, and released their first album, “From Her to Eternity”, in 1984. Over the next 12 years Cave developed one of the most distinctive and artfully constructed personae in pop, mixing Southern Gothic, hellfire preaching, the ache of the blues and the raucous swagger of rockabilly with Brecht and Weill, Weimar-era cabaret, chanson, industrial avant-garde and British folk. “Murder Ballads” (1996), a macabre, droll and sophisticated record, was the culmination of that creative run. Then Cave got his heart broken by P.J. Harvey, and wrote the songs that would become “The Boatman’s Call” (1997). One of the great lovelorn albums, it was as downbeat and intimately personal as its predecessors had been lurid, theatrical and character-driven.
But there is heartbreak and there is heartbreak. We all lose love and think it a tragedy; few of us, one hopes, will lose a child. Cave is at pains to emphasise that he has not distilled art from his bereavement. He could not. Trauma, he tells Dominik, does not stimulate creativity. It does not stimulate anything. It leaves no room. He could only try to work around it: “Lost things have so much weight and are as big as the universe.”
“You fell from the sky” are the first words Cave sings on the album, the opening of a sinister track called “Jesus Alone”, written with eerie prescience before his son’s accident. This sets the atmosphere and pace of the record, which is fraught with tension and premonition. Strange sounds and voices flit through it: a fluting “woo-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” that darts about on the slow, looping “Rings of Saturn”; a spectral sting on a piano ballad, “Girl in Amber”; hisses and sirens on the anxious, urgent “Anthrocene”. The final two songs – the quasi-classical “Distant Sky”, featuring Else Torp, a Danish soprano, and the languorous title track – have a certain sonic purity, like the quiet after a storm.
The musicians in the Bad Seeds have always adapted themselves to the instincts and creative ambitions of their leader. Cave’s principal collaborator here is Warren Ellis, a violin virtuoso and experimentalist who has brought to this album slow-building, whirling, free-jazz sounds familiar to fans of his other band, Dirty Three. “Skeleton Tree” also echoes the solo work of the Velvet Underground’s John Cale (himself a classical viola player) in its haunted starkness. Owing to the circumstances, the recording process was less painstaking and polished than usual, which lends the music a rawness that fits its subject.
The film reaches its musical climax with the session for “I Need You”. “Nothing really matters any more,” intones Cave, summoning the desolation of all-consuming grief. Art is not an answer, when you do not even know what the question is. There is no cure, there is no palliative. The only option is to do something because doing nothing is somehow worse still.
The film is quietly, compassionately devastating. The album sounds more like a musical and lyrical masterpiece with each play. Whether Dominik has done Cave a service, only Cave knows. But he has done Cave’s audience one. Each man, in his own way, has made something to treasure.