For three decades, Nick Cave has been an icon of doom and gloom; a wordsmith in the dark, twisting narratives of death, murder, lust, and human suffering. But what does he do when his own emotional trauma becomes the subject of his music?
Make a black-and-white, 3D documentary to screen on one night only, coinciding with the release of his new album Skeleton Tree, of course.
The film, One More Time With Feeling, is a brutally unvarnished portrait of Cave following the death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, who accidentally fell off a cliff last summer in Brighton, England. Instead of doing an album-release press tour explaining the pain to gaggles of music journalists, Cave and director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) set out to describe the unimaginable anguish in a two-hour film.
For anyone who has lost a child or has spent time with the parents of a deceased child, both the movie and the album are profound reminders of that unspeakable sorrow—the pain that shadows your every moment, the feigned attempts at hopefulness, and the bubbling anger at a world that makes no sense.
Cave, his wife Susie, Arthur’s twin Earl, and everyone else on-screen never overtly discuss how or when Arthur passed away. They don’t need to; the young boy’s untimely death haunts every frame.
Cave says he’d prefer not to boil the agony down to simple platitudes. And Dominick never presses him for direct answers, either, lest the understated film venture into “grief porn” territory. We aren’t here to gaze upon the Cave family’s torment, and we aren’t here to get a glimpse into our icon’s private life—we’re just here to understand and listen.
But when Cave describes how the trauma of Arthur’s loss has become his new epicenter—one from which he cannot run, constantly being pulled back into its orbit by some unseen rubber band-like force—we are given a window into a truly human darkness never before so accurately described in any of the Prince of Darkness’s previous songs.
Why Dominick and Cave opted for 3D, a style normally reserved for action-packed adventures and big-budget animations, remains somewhat of an artistic mystery. But it certainly works to give a hyper-focused view of the telltale signs of a grieving parent: Nick’s eyes are puffy and glazed, and his shoulders hunched, as if he’d wept before each take; Susie buries herself in work and rearranges house furniture to idle her mind; both have a newfound quietness to their faces, as if a piece of them is forever gone.
“You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now,” he intones on “Jesus Alone,” the album’s opening track. “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?”
A whistling synth wails in the background like the unmistakable howl of a grief-stricken parent. The rest of the album quietly and starkly ruminates in similar fashion. (Interestingly, Cave suggests in the film that most of the songs were written prior to Arthur’s death. Whether or not that means the lyrical content is creepily prescient, or simply rearranged after the tragedy, is unknown.)
“Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming,” Cave confesses on “Magneto,” a mid-album stunner. “I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues,” he adds—a mundane detail that any grieving parent would recognize. In the film, Cave recalls crying in the arms of a store clerk, suddenly becoming the object of pity in a town full of people who know him as a musical legend.
The humming build of pianos, strings, and synths throughout the album hints at a climactic build-up to an angry, bereaved parent’s emotional catharsis. But the explosions never come.
What’s the use, Cave’s songwriting subtly suggests, none of it will bring him back.
Indeed, like any parent of loss, Cave questions the very purpose of existence. “Nothing really matters, not even today, no matter how hard I try,” his voice cracks, teetering on a breakdown in “I Need You.”
That song is at once a portrait of a desperate and darkened man, troubled by visions of his son, and by the fear of losing any more loved ones; and one who has personally come to terms with the darkness he’s so delightedly described in narrative song for decades.
Cave now lives in an ever-liminal space between despair and the human instinct to carry on. “Nothing really matters when the one you love is gone” he repeats, now seemingly kneeling on the floor, reaching out to touch the “red dress” of his wife, standing above him more composed than he is.
“I need you, I need you,” he cries. “‘Cause nothing really matters.”
Such contradictory emotions make up a great deal of what the grieving parent experiences after loss. There is no point to life, and God no longer gives “special dispensation” to those who believe, but at the same time, there’s an undeniable urge to be close to other human beings while we’re still here.
Such inevitable glimmers of hope—borne from a realization that we are but blades of grass—pop up throughout the album, like tiny buds bursting through a barren landscape.
In the movie, at one point, Cave mutters to himself in a poetic stanza: “There is paradise in Hell.”
And in the album’s opener, Cave recalls, during one of many “falling” references, “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the river Adur.” But meanwhile: “Flowers spring from the ground, lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers.”
And after four minutes of exploring that mantra, he concludes: “And it’s alright now.”