The music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds carried me through the biggest challenges of my life so far and showed me the ferocious power of art.
Last summer, I was more adrift than I’ve ever been in my life, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ music was one of my few buoys. I had lost most of my birth family due to a family history of violence and their inability to accept my mental health problems and transgender status. I had thrown myself into a marriage that was wrong for me and made it my whole world. When it ended abruptly and painfully, I found myself leaving the city I’d lived in most of my life, moving to the top of a mountain to work as a baker in a wealthy resort and listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on a daily basis. Their music and my cat were the few things that could make me happy in that time.
I’d become a fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds years and years before, when I was a kid working in a record store and stumbled across a copy of The Boatman’s Call. The fandom grew as I wrote an acid western novel and, during my research, discovered Nick Cave singing dire ballads in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But The Boatman’s Call, about the dissolution of a romantic relationship, became something I listened to daily in the wake of my own divorce. Nick Cave’s beautiful expressions of pain did what I have always believed to be art’s most noble and selfless pursuit — it reached through time and metaphor and lives and made me understand that what I felt was human, because there was another human feeling much the same thing.
Moving past that album, I found a bravado in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ other works that helped me as well. Nick Cave growled about murder and death, and his characters were not afraid of either. The moving between bravado and pain helped me heal and refocus on my own art in the wake of constant pain.
It was the day after what would have been the anniversary of my wedding, and I was in the middle of torturing my non-fan kitchen coworkers with endless workday replays of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ reimagining of Stagger Lee when news came that 15-year-old Arthur Cave, Nick’s son, had fallen off a cliff and died from his injuries. I could not imagine the pain Nick Cave must be feeling. There was also a part of me that knew something beautiful, incredibly lasting and human would come of this horrible tragedy.
This is where I become conflicted, as did many of Nick Cave’s fans upon hearing that Arthur’s death would be the subject of a documentary called One More Time with Feeling and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ new album Skeleton Tree. Was it wrong to anticipate someone’s trauma? Was it grief porn to sit and watch and listen to a father talk about the death of his son? Or were we all just looking for something that made us feel a little more human?
The results were, of course, as beautiful and heartbreaking as could be expected. Gone is the man who once intoned, “I’ll say again — I’m not afraid to die,” while singing of a prisoner on death row. He is replaced by someone aging, someone who surely had begun an autumn album with thoughts of his own mortality and faced instead the horror of his child’s. In the film Nick Cave muses, “Fuck, what happened to my face? These circles under my eyes, they weren’t here last year.”
Gone as well is the man who would throw off interviewers with ridiculous claims about the autobiographical nature of his songs. Where he once was content to lie about things like lines in his songs being about Tori Amos sewing sequins into her pubic hair when interviews became too tedious, Cave funded the entirety of One More Time with Feeling so that he wouldn’t have to speak to the press at all about his loss. He instead put it on display for the world, for his fans, for a few nights.
The new album, Skeleton Tree, half completed at the time of Arthur’s death, features the themes of mortality and falling — not to be unexpected from an artist like Cave but heartbreakingly resonant as he struggled with the tragedy.
The lyrics to the new tracks on Skeleton Tree are devastating. He muses about death in a way that ’90s Nick Cave might never have imagined as he wrote about murder endlessly. “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / I don’t think that anymore.” His voice is what crumbles as he sings in “Distant Sky,” “They told us our gods would outlive us / They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied.”
A year after the death of Arthur Cave, I have come down from the mountaintop I retreated to when my own pain was unbearable, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ music was one of the few things that made it okay. My life has changed in numerous ways, and I don’t need the safety blanket of listening to someone else’s suffering to prove to me that my own is real and human. But the minute Skeleton Tree dropped, I was listening to it on repeat, witnessing the pain of one of my favorite artists, a pain I have never known but one that still brought me to tears.
Art, in its best form, is a selfless act. Yes, Nick Cave’s pain at the loss of his son is his own. But he has created from it a shining light that reaches out to every other person who has experienced sudden, devastating loss and pain. There is a quote commonly attributed to Banksy that goes, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Not only does Cave’s pain comfort those who have suffered, but it allows him and his wife, as he says, to decide “to be happy. It seemed like an act of revenge, of defiance, to care for each other and the ones around us.”
Have you ever encountered art — a song, a book, a film — at just the right time to help you through a major challenge? Tell us about it in the comments.