Nick Cave’s new album Skeleton Tree is his first since the tragic death of his teenage son Arthur. Its accompanying film One More Time With Feeling offers a glimpse into his and his wife Susie’s mourning that’s at once harrowing and life-affirming, says Claire Lobenfeld.
“There’s more paradise in hell than we’ve been told,” Nick Cave says late into brand new Bad Seeds film One More Time With Feeling. It’s part of a spoken word interstitial that links the performances of music from the band’s new album Skeleton Tree and interviews with Cave and his wife Susie about the unthinkable tragedy surrounding the making of the record. It’s his first since the accidental death of his 15-year-old son Arthur, who plunged from a cliff in Brighton last July (it was later reported he had taken LSD before this disaster) and both the film and the album are beautifully rendered exhibitions of how Cave has processed this tragedy. The strength he and Susie have demonstrated in the face of something truly unthinkable is remarkable.
The film also highlights that it isn’t just grief that Cave is experiencing, but that he is also taxed with a new set of perceptions from others. He recalls a time waiting in line at a bakery for a loaf of bread and responding brusquely to a stranger who asks him a question. “We’re all with you, man,” Cave remembers him saying, with a kind grip on his arm. It’s then that Cave realises the entire queue is gazing at him with kind, empathetic eyes. “When did I become an object of pity?” he asks the audience. Later in the film, he mentions that it might be “easier to reduce the event to the platitude of a greeting card,” but those missives – “he lives on in my heart” is the one Cave references – are more to comfort others than to compartmentalize.
There is an expectation for someone like Nick Cave to remain unvarnished – that even when he is sullen, his hair is still slicked back and his suiting chic. Early in the film, before any music has been performed, he asks if he should put on a dress shirt. He buttons up in the mirror and is then asked to do it again – the cameraman has had some trouble. This is one of many moments that Cave and director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) allows the fourth wall to break. Videographers are acknowledged, a crew member teaches Earl Cave (Arthur’s surviving twin brother) how to take snapshots with photographic film and Nick references reviewing footage from previous interviews.
These moments lay bare more reality than most music documentaries do, but even with this allowance into the background, certain moments caught in action are the real portals that dismantle the Nick Cave mythology. At one point toward the end, his wife Susie uncovers a picture of a windmill their son painted as a child; it is the same place where he died almost a decade later. That Cave is wearing a track jacket is almost just as disorienting for someone watching with a critical eye – then Susie mentions it upsets her that the painting is in a black frame and you are absorbed back into the story’s heartache.
The push and pull between the inconsequential and the stark pain is something Cave talks about by referring to time as elastic. Early in the film, he says it in abstract and then reflects on it near the conclusion more metaphorically: “We can go away from the event but, at some point, the elastic snaps back and we always come back to it.” This sentiment also mirrors the film’s distinct lack of narrative, as well: Cave or Susie or Cave’s creative partner Warren Ellis are interviewed, the band records and performs, music is composed, interstitial landscapes are narrated by Cave’s spoken word. There is no neatly packaged story like the lyrics for which is Cave is renowned.
Whether this is intentional in unclear, but it is in line with the feverish tone of Skeleton Tree. “Imagination needs room to breathe,” Cave says early in the film. “And when trauma happens, there is no room to breathe.” So, the songs on the album are conceptual – it was the way Cave adapted his writing process in the wake of tragedy. “We all hope for something dramatic in our life that we can write about,” he says. “But this trauma, it was very damaging to the creative process.” He stripped the songs of storytelling, as he said logical narrative no longer seems real to him – there is no complete package to life. It is just life.
One More Time With Feeling exists so Cave did not have to speak to journalists while promoting the album (it was already in progress before Arthur died.) This maintenance of privacy allowed him to create a beautiful portrait of searching for peace in the midst of emotional chaos. It doesn’t answer any questions about how to survive tragedy, but it affirms that you can. It shows us that you can still laugh and live and create and stay in love even while you’re brushing off the dust, that there is more paradise to hell than we’ve been told.
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter.