Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away
20 Feb 2013
Push The Sky Away stakes a real claim to the title of Nick Cave's True Classic.
Owners of one of the most formidable canons in modern rock music, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have made fifteen albums that include but aren't limited to: contemplative piano balladry, testosterone filled rock and roll, murderous, chart-topping pop, and devilish, downtrodden blues. None of these albums are bad (there are a few great songs on the much maligned Nocturama, you know), but there’s also not one you could count as the definitive Cave statement, not one that manages to do all the things just listed under a single title. You’ll rarely meet two Cave fans whose favourite records are the same, as a strong case can be made for the towering merit of pretty much all of them (OK, so Nocturama fans are thin on the ground).
Push The Sky Away is remarkable, but not because it marks the arrival of The Definitive Bad Seeds Statement. We should probably stop waiting for that; after all, this band has been through so many shifts, both in personnel and sonics, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever get one, or could even predict what form it might take. But what’s really noteworthy is that, after thirty years of making the things with The Bad Seeds (and more with The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party), Nick Cave is still crafting records that will have people entertaining the idea that his latest effort might just be his best. The folks in this school of thought will be those more enamoured with the sombre likes of The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part than the comparatively raucous Henry’s Dream or Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, but those kinds of people tend to be men and women of significant taste and intelligence, so their opinions are to be taken very, very seriously.
But Push The Sky Away is a different beast to even those previous cornerstones of Cave’s more meditative work. As with many of the stylistic changes, this one comes off the back of a major line-up shift, with founding member Mick Harvey leaving the band after an association with Cave that dates back to 1973. Though it hasn't exactly ripped the heart from the group, it is interesting that his departure left the Bad Seeds with no original members other than Cave – until Barry Adamson’s surprising return on guitar for these sessions (marking his first contributions since 1986). Also of course, amongst the current Bad Seeds line up stand exactly the same people who make up their Incredible Hulk-like alter-ego Grinderman, though the sound of the bands’ last two releases couldn’t be more dissimilar. It suggests that even though Cave knew his band could kick the shit out of these tunes if they wanted to, he deemed it time to strip everything back, examine what these songs – and, indeed, these musicians - were like if you forbade them any indulgence in superfluous excess, and see if they still had a pulse. Just for the fun of it.
There’s actually very little fun here, but the life to these songs is still overwhelming. It’s an album brimming with ideas, sumptuous melodies and basically everything that Nick Cave has made his name for other than being a really loud bastard. The funereal ‘We No Who U R’ serves as the ideal opener to the album – a warning not to expect anything too rasping, but a caution that the quiet can often be just as unnerving. It also lays out the sonic template for much of what you’re about to be taken through; gently lolloping melodies tiptoe around Warren Ellis’s increasingly strange loops as if they’re trying not to wake them, and you follow behind, equally cautious but enthralled, in to the rest of the record.
From being led “down to the tunnel that leads to the sea” on the gorgeously muted ballad ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ to a later, dejected meeting with some ‘Mermaids’ to the altogether more sinister, distant bass-led murmur of ‘Water’s Edge’ (which begins with the startling line “they take apart their bodies like toys for the local boys / Because they’re always there at the edge of the water” – and gets no lighter from thereon in), it’s an album that’s never far from watery themes. Though recorded in a 19th Century mansion in Southern France, Cave claims to have written most of these lyrics at a desk in his study in Brighton, overlooking an ocean with which he seemingly became somewhat obsessed. But there are other, less strictly nautical aspects to his adopted hometown that were used for inspiration, such as those in ‘Jubilee Street’, an uncomfortable but wholly engrossing tale of the women of his local red light district. It’s the only song on Push The Sky Away to have a guitar quite so front and centre, but its gently repetitive riff is so very moving that you find yourself not really craving any more of the stuff.
‘Jubilee Street’ is one of Nick Cave’s best ever songs, and he knows it, because there’s also a song here that references having completed it. ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ is about a dream Cave had once he’d crossed the ‘t’s and dotted the ‘i’s on the album’s centrepiece, in which he takes a “very young” bride and awakes to start frantically searching for her. Far more than a self-referential curio, it’s another triumph; the distant, whispered vocals even hark back to ‘Hallelujah’ from No More Shall We Part, which is about as complimentary as one can be about a Nick Cave song. The closing title track, which is perhaps the slowest thing he’s ever written, repeats the trick to similarly unsettling success.
Elsewhere the trembling bass on ‘We Real Cool’ brings to mind Lazarus’s ‘Night Of The Lotus Eaters’, but where the band really hammered home the creepiness on that one, here the mood is more restrained, with the rumbles moving gently like a low-registering earthquake, allowing the heart-rending violin work of Warren Ellis to masterfully drag the whole thing further down into the dumps. Amongst it, Cave’s mention of how “Wikipedia is heaven when you don’t want to remember any more” is delivered in a voice that suggests contemplating with both comfort and distress the amount of information he potentially has at his fingertips whilst he sits at his desk, writing lyrics in his notepad, staring at the English Channel.
That’ll probably end up the album’s most quoted lyric, though the excellent ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ (which worships irreverently at the church of Neil Young’s ‘Ambulance Blues’) gives it a run for its money with “Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson Blues? / I’m going down to Geneva baby / Gonna teach it to you.” Fitting with the solemn musical tone, it’s not an LP rich in his trademark humour or smut, though the line “I was the match that would fly up her snatch” in ‘Mermaids’ is likely to make cringe as many as it titillates. And there is that picture of his wife wandering round their bedroom naked on the album cover. Same old Nick in a few respects, at least.
The album might go on about water a lot, but it certainly ain’t treading the stuff. Usually a record such as this, boasting so little in the way of dynamic variation, would run the risk of becoming a bit of a chore, suffer a final third lull, or just generally all sound a bit the same. I’m not entirely sure why this doesn’t happen with Push The Sky Away, but it definitely doesn’t. It never really was, but now, the debate over which Nick album is The True Classic is certainly an utter waste of time. With the arrival of his newest, he’s now got about nine of the things. If you’ve got any of the others, you owe yourself this one. And if you’ve not, get them all – Push The Sky Away very, very much included.
Listen to Push The Sky Away below via a series of videos featuring lyrics from Nick Cave's notebook.