As Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds rehearse Else Torp sings her part on the new song, “Distant Sky.” The camera zooms out the pace of rising mist through the ceiling to show the recording studio, its neighborhood, its little corner in southern England and the whole of Earth as it turns into another Sunday.
“We are a tiny blue dot in a moonbeam,” Cave narrates over himself riding in a car through London’s night streets in a scene from One More Time with Feeling, the group’s new in-studio documentary. We are particle size when seen from a distance. Insignificant, scant, a blip. We live and we die and on the world turns. Cave knows this. It’s the very principle lurking behind each lyric.
One More Time with Feeling, directed by Andrew Dominik, follows Cave, along with dark-eyed, black-whiskered instrumentalist Warren Ellis and the other Bad Seeds during the recording for their new album, Skeleton Tree. More specifically, though, it’s about Cave caught in a whirlpool of emotion as he attempts to create art in the aftermath of the tragic death of his 15-year old son, Arthur.
In July of 2015 Arthur fell 60 feet off the Ovingdean Gap cliffs overlooking the English Channel in Brighton. Reportedly, he had taken LSD with friends and separated after experiencing a bad trip. In the film the horrific event is spoken about only in background statements without context and never with detail. There is talk of something unfortunate happening, a far-off hurt, but what or to whom is unclear. Arthur’s name isn’t even mentioned until near the end when it becomes very clear what this is all about.
Arthur, the beautiful blue-eyed boy, left behind his twin brother, Earl Cave, to mourn with his parents. In One More Time we get a peek into Nick Cave, the Well Adjusted Family Man, a fairly rare sight. We see the family joking around, finding strength together. Cave speaks lovingly of his wife Susie Bick and how they worked through the tragedy together. “Happiness is our revenge,” he says about getting over the cruelty of what happened.
The result of all this becomes the nine songs on Skeleton Tree, their sixteenth album. Deliberate cameras capture the process. Some of the footage was filmed using “this ridiculous black and white 3D camera,” Cave says. It soars around the recording studio, embedded in corners of walls and falling through circular stairwells. It captures the quiet moments between creativity, focusing on plugs in walls, sounding boards, cracks in door frames and conversations in the next room.
Throughout One More Time the film crew is often visible, becoming almost another character. Everyone is very self-aware that filming is in progress and how foolish it seems. In a sense this is a movie about making a movie about making an album. A circular track is laid out around Cave’s piano in the middle of the studio. As he plays gloomily a team of six men huddled on what looks like a toy train circles slowly around him.
To allow a camera crew to capture you unguarded is some kind of artistic bravery. Cave keeps it together, even shares a few laughs, but there’s an intense sadness hiding behind the hard outer Cave exterior. He is very open and honest detailing the difficulty of trying to make a record, trying to structure songs, while surrounded by trauma. Arthur’s death, he explains, disrupted the creative process.
Cave paces the room, dejected about his work, unsure of certain piano notes, overdubbing in doubt. So much vulnerability underneath those dark black bushy brows. He recoils, unable to make sense of the tragedy, unwilling to find within it poetic justice.
When asked about his recent lyrical distancing from the personal narrative, he struggles to explain how incredulous it is to try and define an event in measured verse. Writing from the depth of his personal experience in this tragedy, he says, would be a disservice to Arthur.
“Time is elastic,” he says. We get further and further from a particular moment in time, but like a stretched out rubber band, we eventually snap right back.