The Transmigration of Art
What do you do with a stranger’s grief? What do you do with a stranger’s grief when that stranger doesn’t feel like a stranger at all? When they have not just touched your life with their work but shaped it over the course of decades? What do you do when they turn their grief into art, and make it public?
You consume it. You open wide and take it in unfiltered, letting it flow into you in an immersive, obliterating rush. Because you owe them at least that much. It’s the only thing you can do for them, to stand witness to their pain. You can let their pain mix with your own. You can, through the transmigration of art, let their pain be yours.
And it’s okay if that feels holy. It’s okay if your reception of the offering of their grief feels like prayer. Even if—especially if—you have never prayed before. Because that’s who we are for each other, the artists and the audience. The artists give and we receive. And through our act of reception, they are seen. You are still here, we say to them. You are hurting, but you are still here, and we love you.
The writing and recording of Nick Cave’s latest album, Skeleton Tree, was interrupted and then irrevocably altered by the tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur. Unlike David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, which provides grieving fans a cathartic outlet for collectively mourning and celebrating him after his death, Skeleton Tree does not—can not—leave the listener with the grateful resolution of a long life well lived. Cave’s loss, and so Skeleton Tree with it, is unfathomably deeper and thornier. He is not bravely facing his own death and deciding he’s ready to go out with a final statement, a parting gift and a path for his fans to understand his passing. Nick Cave has lost a child. A child who died needlessly in an accident brought on by a child’s stubborn sense of immortality. The loss is horrific and unfair. There isn’t the comfort here that we find in Blackstar, the feeling of “We should have had him for another 10 years, but look at the wonderful life he led and everything he gave us!” There is nothing so simple and healing as gratitude and hope in the experience of listening to Skeleton Tree.
There is, instead, the idea of this child, Arthur. This 15-year-old child. We do not know who he would have become, what he would have done in the world. We will never know. What we do know is that he’s left a parent struggling through the most unthinkable loss. And because music and words are the way this particular parent processes his world, we are privy to his grief. Blackstar was for Bowie and for us. Skeleton Tree is for Nick Cave. We, the audience, are incidental. He is cracked wide open in these recordings, but open to an unfeeling universe, to a god he now questions. He is not open to us. And that’s okay. He doesn’t owe us a performance of his grief.
But we get to listen in anyway. With Skeleton Tree we have the fruit of Cave’s long collaboration with Warren Ellis. They’ve been moving toward this for years, building an epic sonic vocabulary, and here they’ve pushed it to its furthest point yet. The music is cinematic, all mood and texture, and bypasses traditional song structure to deliver Cave’s poetry in a pure, raw form. Our expectations of what a Nick Cave song should be are subverted, and with those barriers down his words hit us all the harder. The lyrics aren’t edited with the polish and control we’re accustomed to from him, and so we’re granted a greater intimacy. We feel, somehow, both complicit and heroic. We filter our understanding of our own pain and loss through his. The music pushes our own grief and loss up to the surface—because maybe we’ve held it down too long—and we let our grief mix with his, and his carries a bit of ours away with it and we feel we understand him. We feel he would understand us. And so we feel seen. We feel known. We feel...better.
There is something intensely private in the act of listening to music, the way a song can feel like a very real, personal communication with the artist. I’m grateful that I came to Skeleton Tree alone, not having yet seen One More Time with Feeling, the documentary released in tandem with the album. As I understand it, it was made to offer insight into the process of creation (and grief), and so to spare Cave from having to do interviews for the album. He didn’t want to have to field question after question about Arthur’s death. And who could blame him.
Not having seen the film, I don’t know for sure which songs were written and recorded before Arthur’s death and which after. And yet...I feel like I can guess. I feel like I know. That feeling isn’t based on my knowledge of Cave, but rather on my knowledge of myself. Not knowing what was written when allows me to make the story my own, as well as his. It lets me write a story of Nick Cave’s pain that matches my own story. I interpret his pain in ways that mesh with my understanding of my own.
That’s where the catharsis lies. That’s where the exchange happens, the point of access. The point of radical empathy. I think I’m feeling what he’s feeling—but no. I can only feel what I project onto him, what I understand of what he must be feeling based on my own life experience. What I am feeling is not Nick Cave’s pain, but my own pain mirrored back to me. And that mirror is also an amplifier. It makes my pain feel big. Important. Cinematic and romantic. I am the hero of this story. I am noble in my suffering. I am better for it.
And isn’t that so much of what we’re after with music? Isn’t that why we like the songs that really hurt? We’re going after that pain. We’re tonguing the bloody gap in our mouth where the tooth got knocked loose. We’re pressing on that bruise. We’re picking that scab and watching the blood bloom up fresh again. Because when we connect with our pain, we feel. Pure and strong and true. We’re hurting, and so we must still be here. We must be alive. And look—Nick Cave, he’s hurting, too. Just like us. And so we aren’t alone. We’re all in it, all of us, together.
By Cari Luna, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
Image by Fabrizio Sciami, distributed under the CC-BY-SA creative commons license.
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