Let’s address the elephant in the room: Nick Cave’s son died. That’s very sad. This album is not Nick Cave’s son. Therefore, I’m going to analyze it like a piece of art and not a deceased person, because if I did, I’d be tippy-toeing around a complicated subject I have only brushed with briefly before. OK? OK. With that being said…
This is 2016’s most overrated record – number 20 of the year on Rolling Stone, number 15 on Pitchfork, and number 7 on Rate Your Music – and by the way people talked about it in the few weeks leading up to my first listen, I was prepared for something special indeed. Instead, I’m left with this mess: mediocre, glitzy faux-ambient pieces; no progression to any of the songs over the course of their 5 minute average runtimes; really ungainly and flat-out boring production; and Nick Cave moaning dejectedly like an old dog, without a care for whether or not he sings coherent melodies, or that what he’s singing means anything at all. The album’s 40 minutes long, but feels like it’s an hour – four to six minutes a track should have been three to four minutes. Each song plays its hand within 30 seconds and does little to change outside of the meandering structures and weak choruses. The keyboard tones suck. The chord progressions are pedestrian. The pianos plod mournfully with these hilariously melodramatic minor chords. The singing fails to engage. The lyrics float on by without any connection to any other ideas presented. It’s a fuckin’ mess, through and through. The best section of the album remains the final two tracks, which stick closer to actual songform and production values. “Distant Sky,” though dreadfully boring for the most part, closes out its runtime with a legitimately pretty and kind of haunting section, and the title track is easily the best thing here, with its downplayed folky instrumental and actual melody (!) in the guitars. And before anyone tries to say I don’t get it because it’s experimental or whatever, I invite you to consider the following: is a record inherently more challenging, more creative, and better if it abandons songform and focuses on texture and feeling? Of course not – indeed, the album would have been better had it supplied more tune or structure, as opposed to these blobby, stale Tim Hecker leftovers from 2011. An album being out there doesn’t inherently make it better… it just makes it out there.
Here’s an excerpt from a review, not of Skeleton Tree, but of Beck’s Sea Change, a superior, if flawed, record:
“I’ve gotta ask a question to all you people who think that this album is some sort of shattering emotional masterpiece: when you guys listen to Blue or Pink Moon or Blood on the Tracks – or for that matter, to Hank Williams or Blind Willie Johnson – does your head actually explode? Or does it just kind of disintegrate like those Nazis who opened the Ark of the Covenant? Curious parties would like to know.” –Nathan Wisnicki
I quote this because I honestly wish I could just slap this onto every album of annoying, passive, boring indie dreck that gets shoveled into my life, every fucking year, like clockwork, and have that be my whole review. The people showering praise on Nick Cave every few years wouldn’t have a clue what to think of something actually subtle or moving – if Plastic Ono Band is a light breeze, Skeleton Tree is a category 5 hurricane filled with sledgehammers. And, on my life, this record wouldn’t have nearly as much acclaim had it not been attached to an untimely and tragic death associated with the artist. Total nonsense lyrics become “freeform elegies … tapping into the unconscious.” A boring album cover becomes “the colour of eternal mourning.” Grotty, ugly production becomes “less polished.” And so on. You get the idea. People like the story of it: a broken man mourning the loss of his child. The hipsters eat that stuff up. It’d just too bad he didn’t make good music to support the story. Oh, and to the people who think Cave is our best living songwriter: Dylan, Simon, Malkmas, McCartney, and about a dozen rappers I don’t even need to mention, plus all those artists’ fans, are laughing at you.
(Saved from a D by the slightly-above-average closing two tracks.)