Mikael Jorgensen and Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco perform Sept. 10 at The Fillmore in San Francisco. It was one of five shows the Chicago group performed last week at the venue. (Courtesy photo/Nick DeCicco)
Sept. 9 marked the release of Schmilco and Skeleton Tree, the newest LPs from Wilco as well as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, respectively.
Aside from sharing a release date, the thinnest of strings connects the two groups in another way. Both Wilco and Cave have produced material that referenced death and tragedy before they actually happened.
Expect to see Cave's Skeleton Tree (right) on "Best of 2016" lists. It’s a powerful project from a group that already has a spotless discography, including master works such as 1988’s Tender Prey, 1994’s Let Love In, 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 2013’s Push the Sky Away.
The songs of Skeleton Tree find Cave beginning to confront last year’s accidental death of his teenage son, Arthur, who took LSD before falling to his death from a cliff in England.
In the opening track, “Jesus Alone,” Cave cuts right to the quick: “You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field near the River Adur.” Surprisingly, Cave wrote this before Arthur’s death. “With my voice, I am calling you,” Cave repeats.
It's one of several tracks on “Skeleton” that seems to possess the gift of prescience, an awareness of things to come, in Cave’s life. That’s where that thin tie to Wilco appears.
The Chicago six-piece rock band recently finished a five-night residence at The Fillmore in San Francisco in support of Schmilco, whose title is a reference to Harry Nilsson’s 1971 LP, Nilsson Schmilsson.
During Wilco’s Fillmore residence, the group played many songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its most-acclaimed album. This weekend marks 15 years since the album’s first true release, which came in September 2001 via a stream on the band’s website. Due to a record label fiasco that’s worth a Wikipedia deep dive, the record didn’t hit shelves until April 2002.
The timeline illustrates Wilco’s flirtation with premonition. Just days after the 9/11 attacks, there was Wilco singing songs such as “Jesus, Etc.” that seemed to detail the tragedy: “Tall buildings shake, voices escape, singing sad, sad songs. . . . Skyscrapers are scraping together, your voice is smoking.”
Another sadly well-timed thought from another track: “You have to learn how to die if you want to be alive.”
For both groups, dealing with the darker side of life is nothing new. Wilco tends toward accessibility, but it can cloak some shocking savagery in its apparent innocence. “I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt all right to me” begins one song from 1999's Summerteeth album.
Cave, meanwhile, has long lapped in the lugubrious, morbid and macabre. For example, his 1996 album Murder Ballads does exactly what it says on the tin, a collection of covers and original tracks about homicide.
The mystery of the premonition in both the Skeleton Tree and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot songs is part of the initial intrigue. The songs of the 15-year-old "YHF" have endured because of the durability of the songwriting beneath them.
I so often use this space to come back to the notion of art as catharsis. I think there's a cynicism – sometimes duly so – about entertainment and music as vehicles to simply make money rather than something as lofty and pretentious as, gasp, artistic expression.
But whether it's The Chainsmokers and Halsey crooning about love in the digital age, Skrillex dropping beats about scary monsters and nice sprites or Cave singing about death in a way that eerily presages the death of his own son, the bottom line isn't just making that paper. It's about connection. If someone hears a piece of music and it resonates with them, that will endure long after the money is spent. There's comfort even in uncomfortably predictive material such as Skeleton Tree or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". Music can help us cope with death and expressing uncomfortable truths can make us feel more connected to each other, revealing the commonality of the human experience.
“Cool” is not the right word to describe their predictive effect in either Wilco’s or Cave’s songs. In either instance, we’re talking about people’s lives. But hearing Wilco or Cave cope through music helps us all deal with the finite realities of life.
So maybe Wilco was right after all. Maybe we really do need to learn how to die if we want to be alive.Wilco's "War on War," which contains the "learn how to die" lyric:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Jesus Alone:"
Wilco's "Jesus, Etc.:"