Album: Skeleton Tree
Artist: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Released: September 9th, 2016
Highlights: Rings of Saturn, Girl in Amber, Distant Sky
It is hard, perhaps impossible, to detach “Skeleton Tree” from its context. On July 14th, 2015, Arthur, Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son, died after falling from a cliff near the family’s home. “Skeleton Tree” was mostly finished by the time the devastating incident took place, with just a couple of sessions scheduled past that date. However, the fact the album’s full completion and release came after Arthur’s death make it seem like a reaction to or a product of the unmeasurable mourning and emptiness that strikes when parents outlive their children; one of those times when an artist seeks, through his work, some kind of healing, or at least an outlet for what lies within. As a sad coincidence, it is quite possible Nick and the band did not have to alter much of “Skeleton Tree” to make it representative of the reality that surrounded the final days of its construction, for it channels a level of sorrowful contemplation of life that is unparalleled within the Bad Seeds’ discography. “Skeleton Tree”, then, carries a tone that alternates between prophetic and desperate.
With his two guitarists and long-time partners, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, out of the boat, Nick Cave continues to explore the waters of low-key instrumentation of 2013’s “Push The Sky Away” beside Warren Ellis, his main songwriting partner after the duo’s departure. All songs are penned by the pair, with the lyrics falling solely on Nick’s shoulders, and they clearly display Ellis’ appreciation for avant-garde compositions. Truthfully, unusual songs that make a good portion of the world’s population uncomfortable have always been the Bad Seeds’ main exportation product, but here the frantic out-of-control rock band approach is replaced by extreme minimalism. The eight songs of “Skeleton Tree” are built on a web of electronic hums, synthesizers, keyboards, drones, and occasional pianos that seem to only be there to indicate key changes. Cave and Ellis create something that leans towards ambient music; only it is sad, beautiful in indescribable ways, and haunting, instead of unremarkable and dull.
Over that layer, Nick Cave sings lines that are almost stripped of melody. Alongside the simple instrumentation, that singing style causes the tunes to lack any predetermined structure, and the singer takes advantage of that to deliver a mixture of singing and talking that might as well have been improvised. The music is so moving that Nick gets into it deeply enough to produce results that are spectacularly powerful and evocative. He sounds vulnerable, concerned, and a great deal of pain comes through. In “Girl in Amber”, he seems to sing of a dead young girl who survives, perfectly preserved, in the memory of her parents, moving and making noises around the house. The way he sings the line “And if you want to bleed, just bleed”, as the Bad Seeds unleash ghastly unorthodox vocals, makes one wonder if that is one of the parts of the record that was altered following Arthur’s death; the same applies to the heartbreaking chorus of “I Need You”, and some of its other desperately sung lines, like “Just breathe” and “I’ll miss you when you’re gone away forever”.
“Skeleton Tree” is a work that, unfortunately, gains weight because of the context that surrounds it. However, even if the tragedy is not considered, it is by all means a masterpiece. More than thirty years into his career with the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave completely shifts the dynamics of his writing. He replaces wicked storytelling with painful meditation, goes for an audacious level of minimalism not many have been brave enough to tackle, embraces a stream of consciousness straight vocal delivery that is strongly embedded with feeling, and writes songs without any set structure. It is a loud statement on his artistry and on the Bad Seeds’ ability to tackle anything from post-punk debauchery to avant-garde music. “Skeleton Tree” is an impeccable and bold work of art.
Album: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Artist: Midnight Oil
Released: November 2nd, 1982
Highlights: Short Memory, Read About It, Power and the Passion, Maralinga
Although breakthrough albums sometimes walk hand-in-hand with artistic boldness of some level, not many of them can be called weird. “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, the fourth record by Australian rock band Midnight Oil, may not have been a worldwide smash hit – it actually landed extremely far from that spot, but it was nevertheless responsible for giving the group the number three position on the charts of their home country. With such a background, it is natural that one would expect the record to sound somewhat conventional and positively accessible; however, even though it does pack a good share of charming hooks and great choruses, the work captures Midnight Oil veering away from their established brand of hard rock infused with punk approach and attitude, and bumping into some rather curious terrain.
The album’s opener, “Outside World”, for instance, is a synthesizer-laden ballad that sounds more like a tune out of a Tears For Fears record than a track produced by four men whose focus often targets political issues. “Scream In Blue”, meanwhile, borders on progressive, opening up with a two-minute rock instrumental before transforming into a piano-and-voice ballad, certainly an odd choice considering Peter Garrett’s singing never ranked among the band’s best features; and the emotional “Tin Legs and Tin Mines” combines those two facets into a song that alternates moving quiet segments with keyboard-led parts that border on cheery. Moreover, the amazing “U.S. Forces” smartly, and unexpectedly, tackles with acoustic guitars a riff and an acid theme that would fit like a glove on an electric approach, turning what would normally be a punk rock barn-burner into a campfire folk sing-along affair; and “Power and the Passion” closes with the participation of a brass ensemble that would seem awfully out of place in a more restrained record.
Amidst all the oddity, though, it is easy to see why “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” succeeded. Quite simply, it is an excellent set of songs that despite some quirks of the awful production techniques that took over during the 80s, such as overly reverberant soundscapes and cardboard-sounding drums, which may turn some modern listeners off, are finely performed with a great deal of passion. “Only The Strong” has the band firing on all cylinders, with Peter Garrett screaming at the top of his lungs and the guitars of Martin Rotsey and Jim Moginie kicking with uncontrollable fury; “Short Memory” is a beautiful jangly ballad that combines verses that rattle off humanity’s numerous crimes with a catchy chorus that will inevitably pop up in the minds of listeners when they come across yet another human-perpetrated atrocity; “Read About It” has a melody that is so infectious and easy-to-grasp that it, alongside its fiery subject matter, could power a riot; and “Maralinga”, which tackles the British nuclear tests in Australia that poisoned and killed aborigines, is sadly haunting.
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1” may not always hit the marks it aims for, but none of its tunes are entirely compromised; its issues and stumbles are merely punctual, amounting to an album that is strong from start to finish. During the five years that separated their eponymous debut from “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1”, Midnight Oil was searching for a musical identity that would lend muscle to their openly expressed political ideas, and although they did not quite find it here, as the record is still a bit too unfocused, as if its trying to tap into something special by shooting in way too many directions, the album stands as a major step forward and a very strong work.
Artist: Pearl Jam
Released: August 27th, 1991
Highlights: Even Flow, Alive, Black, Jeremy
Given their ability to neatly group artists that share some similarities in terms of time, place, or influences, genre labels happen to be quite fascinating and helpful when describing the history of music as a whole. However, often, they work more as a fancy name under which various bands of disparaging styles operate than some actual descriptor of their music. Case in point, the grunge movement and the great disparities between two of its most emblematic children: Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The former was the offspring of the Pixies, borrowing the band’s signature quiet-and-loud dynamics and punk riffs, and employing them in more straightforward songwriting that swapped Black Francis’ weird imagery with teenage angst. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, emerging from the same city – the rainy Seattle – and sporting the same worn-out flannel shirts looked somewhere else for inspiration, and in “Ten”, their well-regarded debut, those sources become apparent.
Where Nirvana’s guitars threw punches, the axes of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are like steamrollers. As the brutal “Once”, “Even Flow”, “Why Go”, and “Porch” make evident, the lines they deliver are much closer to the elaborate behemoths that Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi unleashed with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, respectively, than to anything ever put on paper by the punks. The band, however, comes off as original rather than an imitation, thanks to both the combination of technical proficiency with rough extended solos that, like those performed by Neil Young, seem to come from the gut instead of the head and heart; and the idiosyncratic melodies and vocal inflections that Eddie Vedder conjures. With the exception of “Black”, whose timeless melody and sheer sorrowful power more than justify its position in the pantheon of the most remarkable power ballads of all time, rarely does he sound conventional or imitable.
In “Even Flow”, for example, Vedder tackles the confused and depressed mind of a homeless man with singing that, while not failing to deliver a handful of unforgettable hooks, perfectly replicates the erratic behavior of a bitter angry heart. In “Alive”, the disjointed lyrics and fragmented vocals that click together on a sweeping emotional chorus paint a blurry picture of a teenager who discovers his father is not the man who raised him. His most powerful performance, though, is in “Jeremy”, the real tale of a young boy neglected by his parents and rejected by his classmates that ends up shooting himself in front of a crowded classroom, which works as a crescendo that culminates in a couple of minutes of Vedder producing wild groans while the band, especially the guitarists, lay a moving electric companion piece to his vocal outbursts. Although it is true that absolutely none of the record’s remaining seven tracks reach the level of quality of the now-classic quartet of “Even Flow”, “Alive”, “Black”, and “Jeremy”, “Ten” still qualifies as a near-perfect album.
When it aims for straight-up rockers, Pearl Jam sounds as fierce as the mightiest giants who have left their marks in rock history, even if sometimes some of those tunes lack a more creative and engaging melodic treatment. On the other end of the spectrum, the set of ballads presented by “Ten”, which in addition to “Black” includes “Oceans” – a song that stands out due to its beautiful simplicity – and “Release”, is invariably effective, as Vedder has an incredible knack for giving gravity to sadness and Gossard, Ament, and McCready seem to share the same kind of sensitivity when it comes to gloomy slow-paced instrumentation. In the end, “Ten” is a complete work by a surprisingly mature band that successfully explores a decently varied genre of tones with a consistent level of engagement and energy.
Album: Days Are Gone
Released: September 27th, 2013
Highlights: Falling, The Wire, Go Slow, Running If You Call My Name
Formed by sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana – whose shared last name serves as the band’s moniker – Haim, perhaps as an indication of the girls’ interest in music from a very early age, came to be back in 2007, when Este, the oldest of the trio, was just 20. However, “Days Are Gone”, their very first album, would only appear six years later. For most bands, such an interval is either a sign of the long time it took for the industry to discover them – an increasingly unlikely scenario due to the current benefits brought by the always-present opportunity to release music on the Internet – or of a long period of maturation of the group’s musical creativity and songwriting skills. With Haim, though, that delay simply occurred because the gig only became a full-time occupation for the sisters in 2012. However, anyone who listens closely to “Days Are Gone” unaware of the band’s history will likely think, thanks to the record’s strength, that the eleven tunes it contains had been around for quite a while before they were put on a record; a deduction that might not be wrong as they sound full-fledged and seem aware of what they want to achieve.
Surprisingly, especially for girls who wield a guitar (Danielle), a bass (Este), and keyboards (Alana) when on the stage and who are part of a generation that leans towards indie music, the target they aim for is the pop of the 80s. Surely, listening to Haim may cause many listeners to think about female stars of the era’s post-punk movement such as Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, but Haim are much closer to an R&B-infused Madonna than to Blondie or The Pretenders. Guitars do indeed surface here and there, but they serve more as the channel through which punctual licks navigate, as it happens more prominently in the fantastic “The Wire”, than lead instruments. With an always excellent bass work in the background, the rulers of the record are – by far – its synthesizers, which are used to produce pop that sounds mainstream and modern while managing to preserve its originality and light old-school vibe.
With the exception of “My Song 5”, Este, Danielle, and Alana succeed in crafting quality pop music that is catchy and has an abundance of hooks. By purposely singing with a voice that is controlled to a degree that it sounds more like an understandable whisper, Danielle is able to deliver the anguish and sadness that the slower and more atmospheric numbers (“Falling”, “If I Could Change Your Mind”, “Go Slow”, and “Running If You Call My Name”) call for, with her voice nicely merging with the beautiful musical background; and also bring the more agitated numbers (“Forever”, “The Wire”, “Honey & I”) to life. Her sisters follow suit in the constant delivery of excellent backing vocals that seem to augment the tracks’ pop prowesses.
Although its production is rather tasteful, “Days Are Gone” – with the luster its meticulous polish causes – can be rightfully accused of somewhat taming the sisters’ honest and likable energy, which is in full display at their concerts. In comparison to what can be seen during the band’s shows, the album – despite its quality – runs the risk of sounding like a canned and overly calculated product to some. However, even to those that happen to have such an impression, it is hard to qualify “Days Are Gone” as anything below “pleasant pop record”, an indication that its production values – intended or not – do not come close to harming the great work Este, Danielle, and Alana did when writing and performing these songs.