Art loves the company of a grieving artist. Nick Cave’s ‘Skeleton Tree’ (2016) made me realise it once again, and as I keep listening it, I also keep thinking about the last line of NME’s review: “Yet this is not an album for the rest of us; it’s a reflex reaction to a torment most people will thankfully never have to endure. It goes back to that old instinct of self-preservation: just as a shark must keep moving, so an artist must keep working, even in the face of unimaginable loss.”
We have to remember that this music is not made for us. It is not to inform us, or make us part of the artist’s life. It is probably made without even thinking about an audience. That is what makes Skeleton Tree, and similar albums like “Tonight’s the Night” (Neil Young, 1975), “Nebraska” (Bruce Springsteen, 1982), “Blackstar” (David Bowie, 2016) and “Hospice” (The Antlers, 2009), so powerful; there is no outside world and no image. The shark just must keep moving.
And yet, grief has the (nasty) habit of killing previously held convictions. On “Distant Sky”, a song so weightless and divine it makes you lose all sense of time and place, Nice Cave kills the comfort of religion in one single phrase: “They told us our gods would outlive us, but they lied”.
It feels similar to the way Neil Young used “Tonight’s the Night” as a vehicle to leave the middle of the road fame he enjoyed after “Harvest” (1972) and consciously ‘head for the ditch’. The shaky voice, the dark humour, the Lo-Fi production, it all serves that one single purpose; move away from the spotlight, move away from the place where everyone loves you. Young seems to say: “this my story, not yours, don’t try to understand”. As if to deselect everyone who just loved him for “Harvest”.
Grief makes most of us introspective and on “Nebraska”, armed with a guitar and a tape recorder, Bruce Springsteen seems to be just talking to himself. No audience, just one man and a tape recorder. It begs the question: can grief and sorrow only be expressed with a soft voice in a dimly lit room?
Not David Bowie, but maybe that was just because he was grieving for himself. The only conviction he killed on “Blackstar” was the conviction of him as an artist from the past, an artist in retreat. Making an experimental, relevant, and at times humourous album in the dying seconds of his life was his way of showing who’s boss. Go out with a bang, not a whimper.
Grief sometimes produces magical music.Our role is to absorb and be grateful; watch the shark come to the surface before he disappears in the deep.