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Shaped by death: Nick Cave’s new album

DERMOT ROANTREE  ::  One week ago, on 9 September, Nick Cave released a new album, The Skeleton Tree. Everything about it is beautiful but heart-breaking. On 14 July last year, during the album studio sessions, Cave received news that his 14-year-old son Arthur had accidentally fallen from a 60-foot cliff near their house in Brighton. Arthur died shortly after being rushed to the hospital. Instantly everything changed for Cave. Also for Susie, Arthur’s mother, and for Earl, his twin brother.

This surely is one of the most harrowing of life’s sorrows: being thrown suddenly into the maws of a catastrophic and irreversible event, a death, especially of someone as close as your own child. A death like this is a kind of overdose of the real. You are confronted, assaulted, by a brute and preposterous fact. You are like King Lear carrying the lifeless corpse of his faithful daughter Cordelia. You cannot understand how the heart of the world can still be beating, how your beloved child can be dead while meaner creatures have been let live: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,/ And thou no breath at all?” But there is no answer. The dead stay dead. You can’t change this reality by changing your perspective, by discovering good in it, or by viewing it sub specie aeternitatis. You can’t even mollify its meaning by an act of the imagination or by a surge of optimism. You can’t transform a reality like this. But it can transform you.

Cave certainly felt transformed. When he returned to the album sessions, he couldn’t find the resources to write new lyrics or to do anything else from scratch. He left everything as it had been. And yet everything had changed. Cave settled on the idea of getting his film director friend Andrew Dominik to make a movie about the new album, but really it was all about his grief. The film, One more time with feeling, was shown on nearly a thousand screens around the world to premiere the album, and as well as footage of the new songs being performed it contains lengthy ruminations by Cave himself about the impact of Arthur’s death. As he saw it, this movie would allow him to say what he wanted to say about the production of the album and the trauma at the heart of it without requiring him to do interviews or to answer intrusive questions.

In one of Cave’s ruminations in the film, he speaks frankly and bravely about the way the death of someone you love can transform you. “What happens,” he asks, “when an event occurs that is so catastrophic that you just change. You change from the known person to an unknown person, so that when you look at yourself in the mirror you recognise the person which you were, but the person inside the skin is a different person.”

St Augustine records a similar experience of disjunction in The Confessions. His closest friend caught a fever and died, leaving him traumatised, leaving him a “magna quaestio”, a great mystery or enigma, to himself. His world was rendered unfamiliar. He himself was rendered unfamiliar. “Black grief closed over my heart,” Augustine wrote, “and wherever I looked I saw only death… Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing; I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me, ’Look, here he comes!’ as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away.” So alienated from himself did he feel that he found himself asking, with a preternaturally modern sensibility, “Whither could my heart flee to escape itself? Where could I go and leave myself behind? Was there any place of refuge where I would not be followed by my own self?”

When it comes to our own demise, we post-Heideggerians are well familiar with the theme of death giving shape to existence. Death, as Heidegger has it, is our ‘ownmost’ possibility, and as such it lends its hue to every experience we have of the world. In a brilliant, if idiosyncratic, introduction to the Gospel of St Mark which Nick Cave wrote in 1998 he identifies in Christ a uniquely intense sense of this shaping-by-death. Cave is powerfully gripped by Mark’s spare, urgent, unembellished story of Christ. Christ is in a hurry to save his people. He is rushing, so to speak, towards death, and all along his way the people he meets – especially his disciples – show themselves to be ignorant, clueless, obtuse. It’s a lonely journey.

“He enters a wilderness of the soul,” Cave writes, “where all the outpourings of His brilliant, jewel-like imagination are in turns misunderstood, rebuffed, ignored, mocked and vilified and would eventually be the death of Him”. “Clearly,” he concludes this thought, “Mark is concerned primarily with the death of Christ to such an extent that Christ appears consumed by His imminent demise, thoroughly shaped by His death.”

What we see, however, in St Augustine and in Nick Cave himself is that it is not only our own death which can shape us. The death of other people can do so too. Augustine may have ended up berating himself for being too attached to his friend; he may have come to regret the “madness” of cherishing “human beings as more than human”; he may have found his closure in the inspiration that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Well and good. But for the rest of us, it is fitting that we would be lost in grief, that we would feel, as Christ did on the cross, abandoned by God, that we would discover ourselves to be a mystery to ourselves, that we would be left, as Augustine said of himself, bearing “a tattered, bleeding soul that did not want me to carry it”. All of this is indeed fitting, even necessary. Or, as Julian of Norwich says of sin, “behovely”.

And as with sin, so with sorrow. It is behovely, but it doesn’t have the last word. As Julian adds emphatically to her famous judgement on sin, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. This is the Christian legacy. It is not a rational conclusion, still less an ‘optimistic visualisation’. It is a perception of the world as Christ’s death has left it. Life and death are in good hands.

A prayer is in order: May the time come when Nick Cave and his wife Susie and Arthur’s twin brother Earl can hear, after all the wind and the quake and the fire of their grief, a “still small voice” reciting that refrain of Julian’s: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

The Skeleton Tree on Nick Cave website