The raw energy that spurts from the turntable as you spin The Birthday Party’s self-titled first album is like a Catherine wheel of fantastic bass lines and controversial lyrical content. It is post-punk at its most vehement. But the most prominent aspect of it will be the real sense you can get of Nick Cave who, in 1980, was a half-mad twenty-three year old with seemingly nothing on his mind but sex and existential crises.
Now in 2016, The Birthday Party has been dead for over thirty years, with the Bad Seeds having taken over as Cave’s primary music project. Here we have Nick Cave, almost 60 and a seasoned musician, renowned for his prolific catalogue of wildly experimental and influential music.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released their sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree, this year, a collection of songs made all the more poignant as the writing and recording process went underway shortly before Cave’s young son Arthur died. Some lyrics were semi-improvised to convey the themes of death and loss as the making of the album continued while Cave mourned. Here we have Nick Cave, grieving father. Get the tissues ready.
You’re instantly aware of the general sound this album will have, a modern amalgamation of ambient music, electronica and the typical generally alternative rock.
First song Jesus Alone, with the crowning lyric of “You’re a young girl full of forbidden energy, flickering in the gloom, you’re a drug addict lying on your back in a Tijuana hotel room” is an eerie, minimal track, the synth building up to something that just evades capture, like pinning down sense on something with no reason.
Girl in Amber proves to be perhaps the most powerful song on the entire album. The mournful backing vocals and croaks of “Don’t touch me” are enough to bring a tear to a glass eye. And don’t even get me started on I Need You.
For a breather from Cave, there is the addition of an ethereal female vocalist, like something from Songs of Praise but it oddly fits. Not every song has a chorus; some of them don’t even have a bridge or much direction. In fact the entire album could be regarded as a terrible daze of lamentation.
The imperfect production is deliberate; to emphasise the hiccups and cracks in the composure of those who grieve. It only takes Cave less than forty minutes to guide you through months of internal agony.
The progression of Nick Cave’s artistry and maturity is astounding. Skeleton Tree is the work of not only a musician but a human being, skilled beyond reckoning in the apparent ease with which he channels dire and sometimes incomprehensible emotions into music and lyrics. If not considered the album of the year, Skeleton Tree will at least be regarded as a massively important release to contemporary music; a sound that other bands should take note of and experiment with.