Friday, October 14, 2016

On Getting Excited for Sad Albums

When I learned last year that Nick Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur had fallen to his death, my reaction was of course one of sadness and horror and deepest sympathy. However, when I learned earlier this year that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had a new album coming out, I was excited - not just because I like Nick Cave's music, but because the circumstances surrounding the new album's conception would surely make for an extremely emotive listen.

As long-time and possibly even short-time readers of this blog will know, I love depressing music. I love listening to sad songs and sinking into that sadness and luxuriating in it, feeling what the artist is feeling as I listen. Here's something I wrote in anticipation of Skeleton Tree, that at-the-time forthcoming Bad Seeds album, back in July:

This, Nick Cave's sixteenth album with The Bad Seeds, has the potential to be a very harrowing listen indeed. It's Cave's first set of new material since his son died at the age of fifteen last year, and one can only speculate how he will translate this tragedy into music. I'm personally hoping for something along the lines of 1997's gloomy The Boatman's Call.

When I wrote that, I was actively trying not to sound too ghoulishly thrilled that Arthur Cave had, in death, provided his father with some A-grade material for his next album, but in truth I was really, really looking forward to hearing the bleak aftermath of that accident (Nick Cave described himself as feeling 'paralysed' after it happened) set to music. And that's kind of horrible, isn't it? Obviously I would never hope for Death to darken the doorstep of a favourite artist and cast the shadow of sadness over their songwriting, but I have been feeling kind of guilty nonetheless.

Skeleton Tree came out last month and it proved, if anything, to be an even bleaker listen than miseryphiles like me could reasonably have hope for. It doesn't sound very much like The Boatman's Call at all; whereas that record took a simple sadness that we're used to hearing in pop songs (the sadness felt at the end of a relationship) and expressed it using death as a metaphor, the altogether more complex new album looks into the abyss of death itself, inevitably resulting in a far more confrontational listening experience. Listening to The Boatman's Call is like putting on a hoodie that you purloined from an ex-lover: it might make you feel a little melancholy, but it's warm and it's comfortable. Neither of those adjectives could reasonably be applied to Skeleton Tree, on which the Bad Seeds create a sparse, barren soundscape just to see if life can still flourish there. Skeleton Tree is the sound of Nick Cave unflinchingly challenging himself to find wonder and beauty and reasons to carry on in a world that was harsh enough to rob him of his child. In the end, he manages it - Rings of Saturn and Distant Sky offer a glimmer of hope, a sense of life somehow going on - but this is still easily the most devastating CD you'll put in your stereo this year.

It would seem that I'm not the only person whose interest was piqued by Skeleton Tree's tragic back story. It peaked at #2 in the UK Album Charts - higher than any previous Bad Seeds LP - and went all the way to #1 in several countries, including Norway, Denmark, and Cave's native Australia. Clearly, a lot of people wanted to hear how Cave's loss would ripple outwards into his art. But should we feel weird about that? Is this not a sort of reprehensible schadenfreude: finding pleasure in another's pain? Sure, it was Nick Cave's decision to release to the public an album (and indeed a film) that dealt so starkly with his son's death and the lasting impact thereof, but I still can't help feeling that I shouldn't have been so keen to hear it. Is that nagging guilt justified? Or is it okay to feel pleased that this album came about, in spite of the awful events that had a hand in forging it?

To be honest, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. I suppose the important distinction is this: I'm sad about Arthur Cave's death, but I'm happy that his famous father had the resolve and the guts to make an album out of it, to share his grief with the public, to generously allow us weirdos who get our kicks from sad songs to sample what he's been feeling since July 2015 from a safe distance.

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