Perception: Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds



Intro

 

I am tasking myself to transcribe the lyrics of Skeleton Tree.  Following said transcription I will analyze the songs as poetry with the hope Tree has a specific story or message.  As I do not have a musical education I want to clarify that I am reviewing this as poetry and it is in no way a musical review.  Given the haunting nature of the music, the lyrical delivery being closer to spoken word than song, and the title of the album I think the lyrics will prove vital to the album’s intent.  I would like to make an honest attempt to transcribe the lyrics myself, believing that this process will help emerse me in the material, but if I am stuck and for confirmation I may use azlyrics.com or genius.com for reference.  Here goes.

 

Track 1 - “Jesus Alone”

 

You fell from the sky and crash landed in a field near the river Adur

Flies sprang from the ground rams burst from the wombs of their mother

In a hole beneath the bridge convalesced you fashioned a mask with moss and twigs and clay

You cried beneath the dripping trees a ghost song lodged in the throat of a mermaid

With my voice I am calling you

You’re a young man waking covered in blood that is not yours

You’re a woman in a yellow dress surrounded by a charm of hummingbirds

You’re a young girl full of forbidden energy flickering in the hidden gloom

You’re a drug addict lying on your back in a Tijuana hotel room

With my voice i am calling you x2

You’re an african doctor harvesting tear ducts

You believe in God but you get no special dispensation for this belief now

You’re an old man sitting by the fire , You’re the mist rolling off the sea

You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator don’t you see

With my voice i am calling you x2

Let us sit together until the moment comes

With my voice i am calling you x4

 

Track 2 - “Rings of Saturn”

 

Upside down and inside out and on all eights like a funnel web like a black fly on the ceiling

Skinny white haunches high in the sky with a black oily gash crawling backwards across the carpet or smash all over everything

Wet black fur against the sun going down

Over the sharps and the cars and the crowds in the town

And this is the moment

This is exactly what she’s born to be

This is what she does and this is what she is

And this is the moment this is exactly what she’s born to be

This is what she does and this is what she is

Her eyes that look at me through her rainy hair are two round holes where the air buckles and rushes in

Her body moon blue as a jellyfish and I’m breathing deep and I’m there and I’m also not there and spurting ink over the sheets but she remains completely unexplained or maybe i’m just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain

I thought slavery had been abolished how come it’s gone and reared its ugly head again

And this is the moment this is exactly what she's born to be

And this is what she does and this is what she is

And this is the moment this is exactly what she's born to be

This is what she is and this is what she does

And this is the moment this is exactly what she's born to be

This is what she does and this is what she is

And this is the moment this is exactly what she's born to be

This is what she does and this is what she is.

Now she’s jumping up with her leaping brain stepping over heaps of sleeping children

Disappearing and further up and spinning out again

Up and further up she goes

Up and out of the bed

Up and out of the bed and down the hall where she stops for a moment and turns and says

“You stood here”

And then reaches high and dangles herself like a child’s dream from the rings of Saturn

 

Track 3 - “Girl in Amber”

 

Some go and some stay behind some never move at all

Girl in amber trapped forever

Spinning down the hole

Let no part of her go unremembered, clothes across the floor

Girl in amber lumber slumber shuts the bathroom door

The phone the phone the phone

It rings it rings it rings no more

The sound the somber sound it spins since 1984

The phone the phone the phone it rings the phone it rings no more

The song the song it’s been spinning now since 19-

And if you want to bleed

Just bleed

And if you want to bleed

Just bleed

And if you want to bleed

Don’t breathe a word

Just step away and let the world spin

And now in turn you turn

You kneel lace up his shoes your little blue eyed boy

Take him by his hand go move in spinning down the hall

I get lucky I get lucky cause I tried again

I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone

I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world

In a slumber til you crumbled were absolved into the earth

Well i don’t think that any more

The phone it rings no more

The song the song it spins it spins now since 1984

The song the song the song it spins it been spinning now

And if you hold me i will tell you that you know that

If you want to leave

Don’t breathe

And if you want to leave

Don’t breathe

And if you want to leave

Don’t breathe a word

And let the world turn

The song the song it spins the song it spins it spins no more

The phone it rings it rings and you won’t stay

Don’t touch me

Don’t touch me

Don’t touch me

 

Track 4 - “Magneto

 

Mostly I never knew which way was out

Once it was on it was on and that was that

The umbilicus was a force that they’d found in rabid blood

Then i spun on my wheel

Like a laboratory rat

There was an electrical storm on the bathroom floor clutching the bowl

My blood was for the gags and other peoples diseases

My monstrous little memory it’s swallowed me whole

It was the year I officially became the bride of jesus

In love in love in love you laugh in love you move i move and one more time with feeling

With love you love I love you love

Saw you in half

And the storms are splashed across the ceiling

Oh the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming

I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues

I had a sudden urge to become someone

Someone like you

Who started out with less than anyone I ever knew

In love in love I love you love I laugh you love I move you move and one more time with feeling

I love you love I laugh you laugh I’m disowning her

And all the stars are splashed across the ceiling

Oh I know you come shining

Softly to the hold of a  drink

Come as far as the edge of my blood and then swim

And in the bathroom mirror i see me vomit in the sink

And all through the house we hear the hyena’s hymns

Of love I love you love I love you love I laugh you laugh I move you move you move and one more time with feeling

I love you love I laugh you laugh

We saw each other in half (heart?)

And all the stars are splashed and splattered across the ceiling

 

Track 5 “ Anthrocene”

 

All the fine wind has come

And this sweet world is so much older

The animals pull the night around their shoulders

Flowers fold to their naked needs

Here I come now

Here I come

I hear you been out there looking for something to love

The dark force that shifts at the edge of the trees

Its alright Its alright

When you turn so long and lovely it's hard to believe

But we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene

Oh the things we love we love we love we love we lose

It’s our bodies that fall when they’re trying to rise

And i hear you been out looking for something to love

Sit down beside me and I’ll name it for you

Behold behold the heaven bound seas

The wind cast its shadow and it moves the trees

Behold the animals and the birds and the sky entire

I hear you been out there looking for something to set on fire

The head bowed children fall to their knees

Humble in the age of the Anthrocene

Here they come now here they come I’m pulling you away

There are powers at play more faster than we

Come over here sit down and say a short prayer

A prayer to the air the air that we breathe

And the astonishing rise of the Anthrocene

Come on now come on now hold your breath while you say

It’s a long way back and i'm beggin you please to come home now come home now.

Well i heard you been out looking for something to love

Close your eyes little world and brace yourself.

 

Track 6 “I Need You”

 

When you’re feeling like a lover

Nothing really matters any more

I saw you standing there

In the supermarket

With your red dress folded

Your eyes to the ground

Nothing really matters

Nothing really matters

When the one you love is gone

Stealing me baby I need you

In my heart I need you

Because nothing really matters

Im standing in the doorway

You walking round to my place in your red dress here hanging down

With your eyes on one we love the one we can

Cuz nothing really matter when you’re staying here

standing

I need you

Need you

Cuz nothing really matters

We found a knife the palms of our hands

Here standing in the supermarket

Nothing holding hands

In your red dress falling

Falling in falling in your long black

Cars waiting round

I will miss you when you’re gone

I’ll miss you when you’re gone

I’ll wait forever

Cuz nothing really matter

I thought I knew better so much better

And I need you

I need you

Cuz nothing really matters

All night we wrecked like a train

Turn cars and pouring rain

Never felt right about it

Never again

Cuz nothing really matters

Nothing really matters any more

Not even today

No matter how hard I try

When you’re standing in the aisle

And baby nothing nothing nothing

I need

I need

I need you

I need you

I need you

Just breathe

Just breath

I need you

 

Track 7 “Distant Sky”

 

Let us go now

My one true love

Call the gas man

Cut the power out

We can set out

We can set out for the distant skies

Watch the sun

Watch it rising

In your eyes

 

*female voice*

Let us go now my darling companion

Set out for the distant skies

See the sun see it rising

See it rising rising in your eyes

 

They told us our guards would outlive us

They told us our dreams would outlive us

They told us our guards would outlive us

But they lied

 

Let us go now my only companion

Set out for the distant sky

Soon the children will be rising

Will be rising

This is not for our eyes

 

Track 8 “Skeleton Tree”

 

Sunday morning

Skeleton tree

Well nothing is for free

In the window a candle

Well maybe you can see

Falling leaves

Thrown across the sky

A jittery t.v.

Glowing white like fire

Nothing is for free

I called out

I called out

Right across the sea

But the echo comes back empty

And nothing is for free

Sunday morning

Skeleton tree

Pressed against the sky

A jittery t.v.

Glowing white like fire

And I call out

I call out

Right across the sea

I call out

I call out

But nothing is for free

And it’s alright now

And it’s alright now

 

Male/female:

And it’s alright now

 

Analysis

 

My initial reaction to the lyrics of Skeleton Tree was that it had to do with the loss of a particular woman as there is a clear sense of loss and often songs relate to feminine characters.  However, when I looked up the Adur river I immediately found that Nick Cave’s son Arthur had fallen from the Ovingdean Gap in Brighton, East Sussex and was found dead on a walking path beneath.  The incident occurred during the recording of ST.  Thus the first lines of “Jesus Alone” tell that Arthur “fell from the sky and crash landed.”  “Flies sprang from the ground” where the corpse lay with a mask of “moss and twigs and clay.”  Arthur is a “mermaid,” a human connected to the sea his words taken from him by death: “a ghost song lodged in the throat.”  The rest of the song seem to describe those who will “sit together until the moment comes” for the unanswered call of Arthur as “the mist rolling off the sea,” “a distant memory”:

A woman in a yellow dress

A young girl

A drug addict in a Tijuana hotel room

An African doctor

An old man

 

“Rings of Saturn” personifies the night’s sky.  In a room she is is “on all eights...like a black fly on the ceiling...skinny white haunches high in the sky...crawling backwards across carpet,” But her reach is further than the intimate encroachment into a family home for she is “smash all over everything...over the sharps and the cars and the crowds in the town.”  She is cyclical and inevitable: “this is the moment this is exactly what she's born to be/This is what she is and this is what she does.”  Our bard struggles as she turns her gaze towards him, looking “through her rainy hair.”  As he sleeps, “breathing deep,” she engulfs him: “I’m there, and I’m also not there...spurting ink over the sheets (where he lays).”  Here she reminds him of the hole left by the loss of his son: “maybe I’m just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain.”  Night figuratively as death and more literally as darkness steps “over heaps of sleeping children...up and further up she goes...dangles herself like a child’s dream from the rings of Saturn.”  The ending leaves the author reminiscing on his loss and the loss of those who have been through the same experience.

 

“Girl in Amber” is about the singer’s misinformed notions about what death feels like to those it leaves behind.  As a concept “girl in amber” refers to the halting of life: “lumber slumber.”  Implicitly the “girl” (she/he who has passed), has experienced life up to the point  of her death “spinning...clothes across the floor,” but she can not go further than the point at which she is frozen in amber.  The second verse refers us specifically to remembering Arthur.  Initially from the perspective of Arthur’s mother, Susie Bick: “you kneel lace up his shoes your little blue eyed boy/take him by his hand.”  Then the author speaks to his misled preconceptions of a spiritual essence left behind by those who pass: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/in a slumber til you crumbled were absolved into the earth.”  However death is simply emptiness: “I don’t think that any more/the phone it rings no more...I knew the world it would stop spinning now since you’ve been gone.”  In the song the author seems to be advising the wife to keep living, to let things move as they want, with her emotions: “just step away and let the world spin.”  The Bad Seeds began playing in 1984 and the song uses “spinning since 1984” to describes the author’s use of creating music to continue moving forward with his life.

 

Through “Magneto” the writer relays self-destructive alcoholism.  He drinks “like a laboratory rat,” spinning on his wheel until he is sick “on the bathroom floor clutching the bowl.”  The over drinking a result of his “monstrous little memory,” which we can infer at this point is the death of Arthur.  The author expresses agitation stuck in line at the supermarket, restlessness caused by withdrawal.  Again he is home “holding” a drink.  This time “all the stars are splashed and splattered across the ceiling.”  Drinking blurs the starry sky and dulls the sharp pain of his loss.

 

“Anthrocene” appears to be a strong departure from the album.  Anthrocene (also anthopocene) refers to a fourth epoch defined by human impact on climate.  “Anthrocene” very much seems on topic, reffering to animals, birds, flowers, “the sky entire...the air we breathe.”  The author embodies humanity: “here I come.”  And humanity is “looking for something to set on fire.”  It is a call for environmental consciousness and ends with a warning to literal nature: “close your eyes little world and embrace yourself.”  The themes of this song are so clear and consistent that I really think it would be a useless practice to try and relate “Anthrocene” to grieving for Arthur.

 

In “Magneto” the author appears to be agitated and alone in the supermarket.  The setting of the supermarket returns in “I Need You,” but this time he is with his wife.  The tone is a decided departure from the album so far.  It is a song about love as a conquering force.  The opening line says it all: “When you’re feeling like a lover/nothing really matters any more.”  Despite their mutual loss, despite the guilt of being distracted on the night of their loss: “all night/Turn cars and pouring rain/Never felt right about it/Never again.”  The “nothing” that doesn’t matter is the loss.  It doesn’t matter because he is “feeling like a lover.”  The song a simple testimony of his reliance on his love for his wife.

 

“Distant Sky” is the only song where the author is accompanied in singing.  The voice is female and quite apparently referencing his “one true love.”  In “I Need You”  the author writes “I’ll miss you when you’re gone.”  “Distant Sky” continues this theme of being together beyond their own deaths.  Though Arthur had a twin brother, possibly only mentioned in “Jesus Alone,” it seems that the author believes his wife is left only with her “darling companion…only companion.”  With each other they move on from their grief (earlier represented by night): “Watch the sun/watch it rising/in your eyes.”   

 

“Skeleton Tree” is the epilogue, both of the album and of the grieving.  It is life beyond mourning.  Arthur does not answer the author’s calls and life goes on.  This is portrayed by the mundane setting of sitting in front of the T.V. on Sunday.  The conclusion: “It’s alright now.”




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