52:09 Jesus Alone: Nick Cave’s Lamentation
By general agreement, this has been a difficult year. In the United States, the public mood is stoked to the point of conflagration by the ceaseless cacophony of toxic and increasingly unbearable public discourse surrounding our presidential election. Conflict in the Middle East spirals out of control, driving millions of refugees into an unprepared Europe, with the shock withdrawal of the UK from the EU as one result, and a series of grisly terrorist attacks another.
In these bitter times, it’s perhaps all the more striking that three of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have offered uncanny and profound meditations on mortality in the most personal terms: Leonard Cohen with You Want it Darker, David Bowie with Black Star, and Nick Cave with the gut-wrenching Skeleton Tree.
It is the latter album that concerns me in this post, and particularly the opening song “Jesus Alone,” which I find to be one of the most beautiful songs that artist has created, despite its deep wellspring of darkness. This song in particular represents the working-through of the terrible loss of Cave’s son Arthur, who died last year in a tragic accident at the age of fifteen.
The opening words cloak the events in a cloud of images, evoking Arthur’s fall from a seaside cliff in Ovingdean Gap:
You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers
In a hole beneath the bridge
She convalesce, she fashioned masks of clay and twigs
You cried beneath the dripping trees
Ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid
With my voice
I am calling you
I’ve rarely heard Jesus evoked with such power as the bestower of mercy upon lost and grieving hearts.
John Yeats, painter, and father of the great Irish poet William Butler, once said that a work of art is the public act of a solitary man. In Skeleton Tree, Cave has gone into the most solitary darkness of his grief and wrestled out of it an experience that explodes with light and feeling. He has pushed his entire creative idiom into new reaches with a deeply affecting new use of music, which unobtrusively conveys the emotional landscape in which his thoughts and prayers have been articulated. I don’t know if any musician since Wagner has expressed the agony of Schopenhauer’s blind, tormented will with such immediacy.
That Nick Cave is an artist of the deepest religious sensitivity has been evident for many years – no one, for example, who heard “Patripassian,” his collaboration with Current 93, could doubt it.
Skeleton Tree is one of the great works of elegy of modern times. It puts me in mind of another masterpiece of the genre, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy. I leave you with a few stanzas from “Gone”, from that splendid volume:
And now in spite of sorrow unending, the sky is more
Beautiful than it’s ever been.
Blue and night-blue above a string of pale April yellow
Which stands in for incandescent clarity,
Which is heard as if only.
And then not like a dropped curtain
But evening dark and darker
Until a hand is no longer a hand
And yellow goes green-yellow, then narrows to nothing.
And pace is everything. The slow effacement
Of the window through which she looks
And the mirror as far as away
Now as a star and we are
Both gone. Both from each other
And from the myth we were.