“I think the rock star, you gotta be able to see from a distance,” Nick Cave said in 2014’s heavily stylized documentary of his life, 20,000 Days on Earth. “It’s something you can draw in one line … They’ve gotta be godlike.”
In One More Time With Feeling, a new black-and-white film about the making of Skeleton Tree — the 16th album from his band The Bad Seeds, released this week — the 58-year-old Australian rock star is rarely in focus. He haunts its edges, all the stuffing knocked out of him, looming into a mirror to ask, “Fuck, what happened to my face? Look at the bags under my eyes. They weren’t there last year.”
The new film is colored by tragedy: In July 2015, Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, died after falling off a cliff in Brighton, the Caves’ English hometown. 20,000 Days on Earth was, indirectly, a film about how having young sons had forced Cave to make creativity into some kind of routine. “At the end of the 20th century, I ceased to be a human being,” he intoned then, grandiose yet self-aware. “I awake, I eat, I write, I eat, I write, I watch TV.” Supposedly following a typical day-in-the-life, it showed Cave as a custodian of his own myth, playfully marshaling the muses, and offering surreal illumination of his mercurial process while maintaining fierce respect for its elusiveness: “The song is heroic because the song confronts death,” he said.
Now, visibly shattered, Cave seems to have discarded that sort of mythology. “Imagination needs room to breathe,” he says in One More Time With Feeling, “and when a trauma happens, there’s just no room to breathe.” While Cave says his wife, fashion designer Suzie, is “hugely superstitious” about the prophetic nature of his songs, he later admits, “I don’t really care about that; it’s not important at this stage.” The Bad Seeds wouldn’t usually have released Skeleton Tree in what he considers to be a raw state, “but there’s something about that naked nature of these songs that have Arthur in them,” he tells director Andrew Dominik, with a look of unvarnished helplessness.
The nature of the trauma that Cave suffered is not explicitly mentioned until the film’s second half – the structure echoes Cave’s observation that time has become elastic, always snapping them back to the event no matter how far they roam from it. Before then, we witness him attempting to cope during recording sessions in Paris’s La Frette studios, buoyed by his beardy foil and rock, Warren Ellis, who offers a peaceful, mystic kind of control, along with gentle guidance (“enough emotion”), and cups of tea. “Is my hair all right?” Cave asks Ellis as he sits at the piano. “Best it’s ever been,” Ellis shoots back. “Proceed with absolute confidence.”
Of course, Cave can’t. “I don’t know what the chords are,” he says, as he attempts vocal overdubs — “torture” — on “Jesus Alone.” “They keep changing all the time.” The shot quietens, and he reappears as a voice-over, worrying that his trademark creaking ship of a voice has left port. “Just file it under lost things: my voice, my iPhone, my judgement, my memory, maybe — fuck.” (In 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave called losing his memory his greatest fear: “Memory is what we are: your very soul, very reason to be alive.”) He offers vague statements about narrative and life, only to doubt or revise them in later interviews with the director. Despite what the guidebooks advise, he’s uninterested in making sense out of grief: “All the stuff I’m saying now, it’s all bullshit to me.” He talks about crying in a friend’s arms on the street, only to realize that it’s a stranger. In the queue at the bakery, he mishears a man’s words of comfort. “‘What?’ I say too loudly, and he says, ‘We’re all with you, man.’ And you look around, and everyone in the bakery is looking at you, and you think, people are really nice, but when did you become such an object of pity?”
It’s wrenching to see such a titan so at sea, grasping to express himself and to sit up close with grief, one of “the invisible things, lost things, that have so much mass, so much weight, and are as big as the universe,” as he puts it. In one scene, Suzie shows a painting that Arthur did, age 5, of the windmill a few meters from the cliff where he fell a decade later. Through tears, she says she didn’t want to show it to her husband; rather than comment, he takes the frame, anguishes briefly about where to put it, props it behind a chair, and grasps her hand, and the couple stare for a moment into the camera. The Caves’ generosity in making this film is unimaginable: to have lost a child, to attempt to process that through music, and to add the third documentary layer to satisfy public intrigue and avoid talking to the press. (Cave indirectly upbraids the London Times, who eventually removed an article that appeared to blame his “obsession with death and violence” for his son’s accident.)
Cave and his cohort offer up all the reasons they shouldn’t be making this film. “I find this really hard because I’ve never discussed Nick’s private life,” Ellis says at the start. “I don’t wanna tell you what I saw, what I felt — that’s private.” Cave states that he can no longer predict his reaction to any given situation. “It’s frightening. I don’t know what I’m fucking doing now… what am I doing sitting in a camera talking about this kinda thing? I wouldn’t have done that before.” But Dominik and his crew have done an admirable job of capturing a liminal grief state, matching Cave’s undone demeanor by showing the seams of their own work: setting up shots, exposing the cameramen and equipment, and laying bare the process of filming in 3-D, which adds an absorbing swirl.
Holding it all together are the eight beautiful songs that make up Skeleton Tree, each of which gets a full live run-through, filmed in varying degrees of surreality — the camera sometimes swooping all the way out of the building and over the sea. Resolutely spare and twilit, the album sounds like the ashes of elegies: Drummer Thomas Wydler takes a backseat, offering a minimal backbone to Ellis’s steering Microkorg synth and Martyn Casey’s deep bass. Some of the lyrical abstractions of the band's 2013 album Push the Sky Away remain, intertwined with Cave’s disarming pleas and prosaic observations. “With my voice I am calling you,” he incants on “Jesus Alone,” glowing a little brighter each time. “Magneto” feels like Skeleton Tree's rock bottom: “I love you love I laugh you laugh, I saw you in half / And the stars are splashed across the ceiling,” he prays in the fathomless chorus, before muttering, “Oh, the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming / I had such hard blues down there in the supermarket queues.” He unleashes a wounded cry on “I Need You,” and rues, “They told us our dreams would outlive us / They told us our gods would outlive us / But they lied,” on “Distant Sky.”
Slowly, he rediscovers the sustaining force in his songwriting. “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world,” he sings on “Girl in Amber.” “Well, I don’t think that anymore / The song, the song, it spins, it spins now since 1984.” In one ad-libbed voice-over poem, he talks about wanting to crawl inside his typewriter and die, but holds back, “because someone’s gotta sing the stars and someone’s gotta sing the rain and someone’s gotta sing the blood and someone’s gotta sing the pain … watch out, you fuckers.” Toward the end, the camera follows his car as he leaves a recording studio in London and heads for home. Usually, he says, when you make a record, you leave with the feeling of having created something of great significance and permanence. “I know [this album] has none of that,” he says. “But I have consciousness. It only exists in the present moment.”
The film ends with his declaration that after a while, he and Suzie “decided to be happy. It seemed like an act of revenge, of defiance, to care for each other and the ones around us.” His words unfurl as individual shots of every member of the band, cast, and crew appear onscreen. Lastly, Cave, Suzie, and Earl appear, followed by a blank space, inscribed, “In loving memory, Arthur Cave." The credits roll, and a home recording plays, of Cave on piano and his sons singing Marianne Faithfull’s “Deep Water”: “Your face is hidden from me / But your love is not / I will not reach for other things / Till I know what I have got / I'm walking through deep water / Trying to get to you.” There are no prophecies, but memory is eternal.