‘‘Isn’t it the lost things that have so much mass?’ asks Nick Cave, half way into One More Time with Feeling, a promotional film released with the arrival of new Bad Seeds album Skeleton Tree. So far, Cave has talked us through the band’s creative process in his terse, preacher man style. But, unlike previous documentary 20000 Days On Earth, this is not just a window into Cave and the band’s work.
There is an absence, spectral yet central, to what we are seeing and hearing, coming from the pained confusion in Cave’s countenance. This is why, near the beginning, Cave abstractly muses that ‘time has become elastic’, with all experience rooting back to trauma. Later, he clarifies: “We can go away from the event but, at some point, the elastic snaps back and we always come back to it.”
The ‘event’ Nick refers to here is the death his Fifteen-year-old son Arthur in June last year. Arthur – one of Nick’s twin sons with Susie Bick – died after falling off a cliff in an accident near the family home in Brighton. Though writing and recording had commenced before this tragic accident, it is difficult to conceive the record or film outside of it.
In One More Time with Feeling, Cave opens the studio door to friend and director Andrew Dominik (Chopper, Killing them Softly), who elicits thoughtful answers to the few questions actually worth asking.
The songs, scattered through the film as in-studio performances, are in many ways a natural progression from 2013’s Push the Sky Away. The Bad Seeds sinister bass lines, literary-gothic vibe and avant-garde arrangements are all present. Cave talk-sings a familiar litany of sky and sea while Warren Ellis sears a sense of disquiet.
Lyrically, it is both allegorical and direct. Nick claims to have ‘lost faith’ in his old narrative style, choosing a more chaotic style because, he suggests, there is ‘no pleasing resolve’ to life. Opener Jesus Alone begins with a boy falling from the sky and lambs bursting from the womb; leading to the direct chorus: ‘With my voice, I am calling you’.
Cave has built up a mythology over decades. Dressed with slicked back hair and matching suit, he deals mortality tales and macabre tunes. Now, facing personal tragedy while artistically in the limelight, his work has become a mode of survival. He looks lost and admits confusion. At times, the Nick Cave mystique audibly dissembles. Cave bears his soul, his vocal is frail, wounded, even vulnerable (See: ‘I Need You’). It is the visceral openness of Skeleton Tree that stands it apart from the Bad Seeds’ oeuvre.
Susie Bick, like son Earl, grows slowly into the film. She speaks of immersing herself in her clothing label The Vampire’s Wife, a name “which means whatever you want it to mean and has a certain tongue-in-cheek quality when you see the collection.” To those born too late: Susie was a cult model in the 1990s and is the gothic beauty on the cover of The Damned’s Phantasmagoria and The Best of Roxy Music, working with Vivienne Westwood, David Bailey and Nick Knight among others. She strikes as less philosophical and more interesting than Cave.
Her penchant for moving furniture in the family home creates difficulty for filming crew and light relief for the audience. The crew are forced to remember how the house was during a previous days filming, while Susie and Nick reminisce together on decades of related incidents.
Suitably, Dominik breaks the fourth wall on many occasions: Nick asks how his eyes look and if he should put on his usual formal shirt, surviving son Earl is shown how to use equipment, a cameraman asks to re-do a take after there is a problem with the 3-D black and white camera.
The decision to film in black and white 3D is unconventional and not wholly a success. At times, it produces a sense of sacredness, however in the more everyday moments it feels a strange choice. Dominik switches a good deal between 2d and 3d, the colour is often more shadowy grey than black or white. Cave’s voice narrates personal thoughts, at times very personal: “what would I do without Warren.” Despite the unusual territory, Dominik achieves both formal distance and personal intimacy: his choices portray a living icon in mourning, thinking and performing.
The film closes with a photograph sequence of everyone involved in the production of both album and film, ending with the Cave family together. Old family footage of the cliff where Arthur fell resonates lightly over the credits. Music begins, it is a rendition of “Deep Water” (Nick Cave, Marianne Faithful), performed by the Cave twins before their separation.
As I leave, I find myself thinking about something Cave said during a spoken word interlude: “there is more paradise in hell than we’ve been told”. Cave’s love for his family and their evident love for one another is enough, the family continue to laugh and create in the raw aftermath of tragedy. One More Time with Feeling is an affirmation of friendship, family and art’s transformative power.