Nick Cave is an artist who has never shied away from exploring the darker side of the human experience, often in broadly gothic strokes on his early albums but with a growing degree of nuance and compassion as Cave and his work matured. But a very real and deeply painful tragedy was visited on Cave while he was working on his 16th solo album, Skeleton Tree. His 15-year-old son Arthur Cave died when he fell from a cliff in July 2015, and while the writing and recording was already underway when the youngster suffered his accident, the grief and pain of loss Cave felt is palpable throughout this album. Skeleton Tree is relatively modest in scale -- it runs just 40 minutes, the cover artwork is minimal, and the music lacks the dramatic, grand-scale arrangements of Cave's albums of the 21st century. Nearly all of these songs feature spare, minimal melodies and low-key soundscapes that hover over beds of atonal electronic noise and sculpted static. And while the estimable talents of the Bad Seeds are on display here, on many tracks the final effect feels more like an author reading over ambient backing tracks than the sort of evocative sounds one might expect from Cave and his collaborators. The lyrics appear to reference Cave's personal loss on occasion -- the very first words in the opening track, "Jesus Alone," are "You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field," which could hardly be a mere coincidence -- yet Skeleton Tree doesn't feel like an album about the late Arthur Cave. Instead, Skeleton Tree plays like an act of mourning, a set of songs in which Cave makes his acquaintance with grief and struggles to make sense of the pain and emotional devastation that come with outliving your child. As always, Cave's songs are both literate and emotionally honest, and though this music is genuinely passionate, he avoids histrionics. Skeleton Tree isn't about exorcizing the agony of being robbed of a loved one. Instead, this music honors the dead by making sense of the pain of the survivors, and the harrowing and beautiful "Distant Sky" (a duet with Else Torp) finds a point where these two sides meet and find peace. Even by Cave's dour standards, Skeleton Tree is a tough listen, but it's also a powerful and revealing one, and a singular work from a one-of-a-kind artist.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming