Putting flesh on the skeleton of narrative

Dr Fiona McBryde reviews 'One more time with feeling', the cinematic accompaniment to the new album from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

What happens to the self and the creative process following a major life event? One More Time With Feeling offers a moment to explore this, against the backdrop of Skeleton Tree, the sixteenth studio album from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Addressing themes of narrative, loss, creativity and growing older, it is less music documentary and more carefully crafted and wonderfully absorbing performance piece.  

In conversation, Cave and the director observe that narrative has always been important in the Bad Seeds body of work. In contrast, the material of Skeleton Tree has departed from this and embraced the message that life can refuse to adhere to a narrative that helps us make sense of events, and of ourselves. The cinematography shows us this, through repetitions, retakes, fractured moments and car journeys that seem to go nowhere. An overlayed narration of some of Cave’s thoughts hint at the ‘should haves’ and ‘how did I get heres’ that interrupt any sense of there being one single interpretation of our experiences. The music too play with rhythmic conventions, giving a sense that there is something that refuses to settle, particularly on the tracks, Jesus Alone, Anthrocene, and Girl in Amber.

For a long time, the event that is at the heart of this discontinuity is only ever alluded to. The film is in the end dedicated to the memory of Arthur Cave, Nick Cave’s young son who died in 2014. As his family gradually appears, we hear more overt reflection on the experience of bereavement, grief, and the challenge of making sense of things following such an abrupt loss. In a hopeful way, we see and hear about the processes of creativity and work as sources of keeping going, rediscovering continuity and sense of self. Never far from the tableaus of the film is that other source of coping: the humour shared between loved ones, colleagues, and in this case, the audience.

As the film draws to a close, Cave notes that he cannot offer take home messages, platitudes or a comfortable ‘rounding off’ of his experiences at this time. He still finds that his understanding of who he is shifts and rearranges. Instead he steers us towards some of the power of being with our littleness in the world, and ultimately of compassion. He and his loved ones are choosing to be kind – to one another, to oneself, even, as they note, to the film’s director. While the penultimate track Distant Sky echoed something of a healing process, it is the refrain of the final track Skeleton Tree that reflects the hope of moving onward through self-compassion.

The experience of Once More With Feeling, and indeed the Skeleton Tree album, won’t be for everyone, but this film was valuable for the central role that it gave to the hard work that we all do creating our own meanings and making sense of our own narratives. Furthermore, it managed to do this with what I felt was a hopeful rather than a bleak nod to the fragility therein.

- Review by Dr Fiona McBryde, Chartered Educational Psychologist.


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