See One More Time With Feeling, the documentary about the making of Skeleton Tree, at Event Cinemas this Thursday December 1 – Sunday December 4.
Towards the centre of Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor, a hunted man takes a phone call from a Mexican Jefe to talk about death.
“When it comes to grief, the normal rules of exchange do not apply,” says the Jefe, “because grief transcends value. You cannot buy anything with grief, because grief is worthless … The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass.”
Death and grief are unknowables. You can’t truly comprehend dying, the same way you can’t shout about silence or fuck into chastity, and in the face of the “extinction of all reality”, language fails. Nobody can tell you what it’s like to die, and you can’t talk it away with words: it forces us to peddle statements so reductive as to be pointless. Death just is, the way life is; the way we walk around, breathing, until the day we don’t any more.
But despite death’s inherent opposition to language, it hasn’t stopped ‘grief and loss’ becoming a subgenre of self-help novels regularly exploited by misty-eyed cranks and money-makers. The list of books about grieving is inexhaustible – it’s almost as popular a topic to write about as sex or automobiles – and to type “learning how to die” into Google is to be assaulted by a pithy stream of quotables. “You never attain wisdom until you die,” sayeth Socrates. “Death smiles at us all,” sayeth Marcus Aurelius. “With thoughts of you,” sayeth Hallmark.
Finding true guidance in matters of mortality is rare. Given that dearth, it’s not only surprising that two of the finest albums released this year – David Bowie’s Blackstar and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree – are about dying; it’s a genuine miracle. They are sister records: two brief glances at the same tar-black stretch of nothing, and two albums with complicated relationships to language.
Indeed, what sets Cave and Bowie apart from the hucksters and word jockeys who present death as some minor hurdle to be vaulted over is their acknowledgement of their own inherent linguistic failings. On previous records, both artists have displayed a fondness for saturated turns of phrase, but on Blackstar and Skeleton Tree, they trade in their extensive vocabularies for tiny, trinket-like metaphors.
In that way, the approach of both artists echoes the work of Paul Celan, the German-language poet who turned to writing following the horrors of Auschwitz and World War Two. “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language,” wrote Celan. “In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”
That selfsame lack of answers is particularly evident all across Blackstar, an album released 48 hours before Bowie’s death. The exemplary ‘Lazarus’, for example, full as it is with lines about bluebirds and freedom, deals deliberately in naivety – it offers no finalities; has no conclusion. Bowie’s voice is not world-weary as it was on Low, or full of alien intelligence as on Ziggy Stardust – it is the voice of a child, unable to provide answers to questions that might well lack them anyway. The same is true of the album’s title track, a song peppered with boasts both defiant and inherently doomed, loaded statements that have only a passing connection to what we usually describe as ‘meaning’.
Bowie leaves death shapeless: it’s not corporeal, or a character, or even a ‘thing’. It has no basic properties or quantity, and his language gropes the space around it, marking out what it’s not rather than what it is. Death is something that happens outside of Blackstar, a full stop dropped off to the side.
Cave’s modus operandi on Skeleton Tree is the same, though he is dealing not with the destruction of the self but the passing of a loved one: his son Arthur, who fell to his death in July 2015. In the process, Cave moves closer to mentioning the specifics of death than Bowie – the very first line of ‘Jesus Alone’ seems to explicitly reference the passing of his son – but he too never quantifies loss or gives it a name.
Celan’s “thousand darknesses” touch each of Cave’s lines. Cave’s neat, beat-poet-esque rounding off of couplets is akin to Bowie’s childlike approach, but he takes it further, offering up lines that only just manage to be heard, that only just land on the other side of silence. “Once it was on, it was on and that was that,” he mumbles on ‘Magneto’, rolling the words around his mouth as though they were marbles.
Cave’s language negates itself. He offers up pleasantries and quaint quips – “I need you, need you” – and he repeats lines and randomly drops poetry the way a dementia-addled gardener might sow seeds. By the time the final track ‘Skeleton Tree’ rolls around, he’s stopped dealing in stories altogether and offers up only images. The narrative has broken. The through-line is gone.
What’s the point, then? What does either record actually do, if grief is worthless and if death is silence, and we can’t talk about these things anyway? The answer, though hard-won, is simple, swollen with the reductive beauty we find ourselves talking in when we must discuss the things that can’t be discussed. What do Blackstar and Skeleton Tree do? They offer art up in the face of absence. And they do it as though that might be the kind of thing that matters.
[Nick Cave photo by Kerry Brown]
Blackstar is out now through Columbia/Sony, and Skeleton Tree is out now through Bad Seed Ltd/Kobalt.Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play ICC Sydney Theatre on Friday January 20 and Saturday January 21 as part of Sydney Festival 2017.
One More Time With Feeling, the documentary aboutSkeleton Tree, returns to Event Cinemas this Thursday December 1 – Sunday December 4. Tickets are on sale now.