Cave Pushes the Sky Away
Jonathan Alley on the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album since 2008
As the years – nay, decades pass – each new album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is met with equal amounts consternation, wonder, and suspicion it could be a swansong.
Since the late ’00s, the status of The Bad Seeds – always more an ensemble of superlative musicians as opposed to a real ‘band’ in the conventional sense – has been in open question, particularly after the departures of mainstays Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey over the last decade.
Even so, perhaps barring 2003’s Nocturama, each chapter in the unfolding story of The Bad Seeds’ musical life has been anticipated as a missive from the state of Cave’s musical union, whether it be the sombre but beautifully realised No More Shall We Part, his grandly realised twin killer punch Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, or the highly irreverent and utterly energised Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!.
With releases from Cave’s Grinderman project in 2007 and 2011, and a series of deservedly acclaimed soundtrack collaborations falling between Bad Seeds projects, some began to wonder if The Bad Seeds were simply coming to a wholly natural conclusion.
But raised eyebrows over Grinderman’s abrupt end at 2011’s Meredith Music Festival in Victoria were ultimately a small furphy: the unit that’s created Push the Sky Away is identical in line-up to Grinderman, with the addition of longtime drummer Thomas Wydler (though original bassist Barry Adamson guests on Finishing Jubilee Street and the title track).
The music is fundamentally different: where Grinderman was taut and explosive, improvisationally incendiary and brimming with overt menace, Push the Sky Away reaffirms why The Bad Seeds exist. The structural formality of these carefully considered pieces – sombre, disciplined, highly arranged, rich in imagery and possibility – speaks volumes of the contrast.
Recorded with producer Nick Launay in the crumbling grandeur of La Fabrique in the South of France, Push the Sky Away is a set of lyrical observations and imaginings expressed through the wonderfully poetic prism that is Cave’s imagination. And it is an expression designed to be heard from beginning to end; a properly realised entity to be heard in one sitting.
Cave himself remains effusive about The Bad Seeds transformative effect on his art. “I enter the studio with a handful of ideas, unformed and pupal; it’s The Bad Seeds that transform them into things of wonder. Ask anyone who has seen them at work,” he says. “They are unlike any other band on earth for pure, instinctive inventiveness.”
TRACK BY TRACK
1. We No Who U R
As opening tracks go, this is quite the declaration of intent. “Tree don’t care/what the little bird sings” is one of the more mournful lyrical opening gambits of recent times. A melancholy, beautifully subdued track, with Martha Sky Murphy’s backing vocals a highlight.
2. Wide Lovely Eyes
A hymn for The Morning After God Knows What. “Dismantled the fun fair/ and shut the rides/ hung the mermaids in the street by their hair” croons Cave. He may have been listening to June Carter Cash’s Ring of Fire, and Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue first, but that’s pure speculation.
3. Water’s Edge
Could be almost be a scene from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock; pitting the frustrated yearnings of local boys against unattainable women by the piteously crumbling seaside. The album’s first moment of genuine menace, underpinned by Ellis’s insistently dark violin. “Boys think long and hard about the girls from the capital/ at the water’s edge/ shaking their asses.”
4. Jubilee Street
Taking a walk down “out of place and time/ over the hill/ and out of my mind” on Jubilee St, presumably the same avenue known to natives of Brighton, UK (Cave’s current hometown). A beautiful slow burn: the first opportunity The Bad Seeds have to rumble here as an ensemble, languid but powerful; fuelled by strings and ensemble vocals.
Cave in Brighton: the land, the water,
the temptations of mortal flesh and the spectre of damnation. A mermaid was going to crop up eventually, it was inevitable.
6. We Real Cool
An insistent and vaguely threatening bass figure underpins this brief, vaguely cinematic little mini-storm of instrumentation. “Wikipedia is heaven/when you don’t want to remember no more.”
7. Finishing Jubilee St
Only Cave gets away with a semi-spoken narrative about a dream experienced after collapsing into fitful sleep on writing Jubilee Street. An unexpectedly deft melodic left turn floats us up and aways.
8. Higgs Boson Blues
If this is the most disciplined Bad Seeds album in a while, this extended foray into lyrical surrealism – invoking dead bluesman to Robert Johnson “with a ten dollar guitar strapped to his back” during a drive to Geneva – is the most exhilarating moment on the album.
9. Push the Sky Away
The closing title track is no triumphant curtain closer; more a despondent, beauteous and desolate beast; cloying keyboards keep us interested as the dark clouds – yes, indeed – push away the sky.
• Push The Sky Away is released on February 15