My first attempt at reviewing Skeleton Tree, the new album from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was not successful, although it was accurate.
"Gawddamn" I wrote.
I was done.
A month ago we installed a new kitchen in our lounge. This towering monolith of Fisher Price plastic clashes horribly with the rest of the décor and dominates the space. But Poppy, my 19-month old daughter, absolutely loves it.
So, for now anyway, it stays.
It was Saturday in the office and for the first time in forever it was bright and blue outside. A gift of a day, I thought, pulling down the blinds to stop the sun glaring on my computer screen. It may have been hot enough to hit the beach but I had work to do.
Naturally, I put it off as long as possible. I made a coffee, nipped out to get a chocolate-espresso donut and then mooched off to get a glass of water to wash it all down.
Then I got to work.
The effect of Skeleton Tree is immediate. It's sombre, heavy and overpowering. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. For there is no joy to be found in the abrasive, distorted hypnotism of opening track Jesus Alone. The song bubbles, as thick and dangerous as Rotorua mud, as a ghostly organ swoops around its mesmerizing groove like haunted wind. Deep strings occasionally pierce its claustrophobic atmosphere but find no salvation. They're quickly consumed, like the very air you're breathing, back into its thick mysticism. Cave's baritone intones throughout, "With my voice, I am calling you." It is not an invitation.
Each morning before work, and then again when I arrive home, Poppy prepares tea at her kitchen. With utmost concentration on her little face she fills a little red plastic teacup with air from her little red plastic teapot. Then, because she knows how I like my tea, she picks up her plastic spoon and carefully stirs the nothing in the cup. When it's ready she toddles over.
"Tea, Daddy?" she nods, offering me a cup.
This year my resolution was to keep an orderly inbox. I long since broke it. My inbox a shameful shrine to procrastination. Buried deep in the 545 emails (48 unread) is one I desperately need to find because it has a link to the new Nick Cave album which I'm supposed to review. I curse myself for not downloading it immediately, but as I'm not much of a Nick Cave fan I wasn't particularly bothered. I take a bite of my donut and start searching.
Why the hell is nothing coming up when I enter 'Cave'?
I take a long and exaggerated slurp of nothing and say,"Mmmm... what a lovely cup of tea". Poppy beams. She gets real joy from the pretend pleasure I get from this cup of air, which in turn makes it real. We're both happy. Content in the shared lie of the tea.
I do sometimes wonder if Poppy knows that there's no tea and that the whole ceremony's a farce. Regardless, I won't ever let on that it's not real. There's comfort for us both in the ritual. Handing her back the cup I say what I always say.
Skeleton Tree is not an easy listen. Its themes of loss, death and questions of faith are all too real following the passing of Cave's 15-year-old son Arthur in an accident last year. This event weighs heavy on the album and it's impossible to separate it from every word, every note.
It's funereal. But there are moments of solace and poignant calm. Rings of Saturn is hopeful and warm, while the title track is almost at peace. But the one-two gut punch of Girl in Amber and Magneto drown you in heart-wrenching sorrow. The former a delicate ode, the latter so full of empty pain that musically it's barely there.
In contrast hymn Distant Sky offers religious sanctuary. Guest vocalist Else Torp calling us softly to the heaven, leaving Cave and his devastation behind. It's difficult to remain dry eyed.
Skeleton Tree is the most powerful and affecting album I've ever heard. A portrait of unbridled grief and pain that somehow finds art and beauty in its creator's tormented anguish. It's wounded and raw and awful and beautiful. It's a masterpiece.
I'd finally found that email and had downloaded the new Nick Cave album. The review was due by Tuesday, 10.00am, but I'd write it later. For now, I'd simply use the music to drown out the din of the newsroom while I filed a story about Mariah Carey having a bath.
I finished my donut and put my headphones on. Then I pushed play and everything dissolved.