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Heart Beats

Sean Michaels takes a closer listen to Nick Cave

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Rings of Saturn (2016)

You would be forgiven for mistaking Rings of Saturn for a love song. I did. It's the dark jewel on Cave's latest record, with a refrain that may appear, at first, to be trained on a perfect, fervid lover. "This is the moment/ this is exactly what she was born to be," Cave sings. "This is what she does/ this is what she is." He intones the words atop a shimmering stammer of synths and a wordless, yearning backing vocal; their sensuous effect is only accentuated by Rings of Saturn's competing tempos: the languid music, slow as limbs in bedsheets, and Cave's accelerating verses, like a quickening of the blood.

But Rings of Saturn is not a love song, at least not in the conventional sense. And Skeleton Tree, the album that encloses it, is not one of Cave's familiar rhapsodies of lust. In July, 2015, Cave's 15-year-old son, Arthur, fell to his death after taking LSD. Although much of the LP had already been written, and even recorded, at the time of Arthur's death, the effects of the tragedy rippled outward, transfiguring what had already been done. Some of these songs were revised or demolished over the past 14 months, others were not. Yet somehow all of this material seems riddled with grief, as if Cave's anguish leached backward through time, without respect for chronology.

If Rings of Saturn is a serenade, it's not a serenade to anything good. The "she" Cave is singing to is variously a spider, a funnel web, a fly, a jellyfish. "Her eyes that look at me through rainy hair/ Two round holes where the air buckles and rushes in," he sings. "Stepping over heaps of sleeping children/ Disappearing and further up and spinning out again … Up and out of the bed and down the hall where she stops for a moment and turns and says, 'Are you still here?' " The language is surreal, contradictory, opaque, as if Cave is speaking from inside a fever dream – or from inside a catastrophe.

Perhaps Cave is remembering an old betrayer. Perhaps it's a song to a former lover, some wicked ex. But if it's none of these things, then it might be the most dangerous kind of ballad there is: a love song to Death herself, cruel and lustrous, as she's weaving. Songs to Death can have beauty and have power, but we must be careful where we leave them, or whom they find.

Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.