On the face of it, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds aren’t exactly a natural fit with the O2. Cave’s songs range from the thrillingly cacophonous to the quietly lovely. But with their recurring themes of death, violence and religion, and a muse that rarely leads Cave in the direction of the mainstream, very few have ever seemed particularly arena-friendly. And that was before his latest album, Skeleton Tree, which forms the basis of his current tour — and which Cave completed after his 15-year-old son Arthur died falling from a cliff in Brighton.
Cave has warned against seeing the album as a direct response to the tragedy, emphasising that many tracks were written before it happened. Yet, while it’s true there are no explicit references to a child’s death, Skeleton Tree does open with the lines, ‘You fell from the sky/ Crash-landed in a field’ before serving up eight sparse, piercingly sad songs of loss, disorientation and yearning for the impossible return of a loved one. So how would this stuff come across in a concrete bowl of 20,000 iPhone-wavers? The answer, it turned out, was utterly triumphantly, with the incongruity of the setting somehow only adding to the admittedly weird beauty of Saturday’s show.
Wearing his usual dark suit and implausibly shiny shoes, Cave began uncompromisingly — sitting on a crooner’s stool and half-singing, half-whispering Skeleton Tree’s ‘Anthrocene’, with its aching cry of ‘I’m begging you please to come home now.’ But then he leapt on to the thrust stage, started grabbing fans’ outstretched hands and even did some stage-diving of the kind that most other 60-year-olds might consider unwise. Which would, I suppose, have been standard rock-star behaviour, expect for what he was singing as he did so: more mournfully stripped-down songs from the album, with lyrics such as ‘And in the bathroom mirror I see me vomit in the sink.’