Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – “Push the Sky Away”
Nick Cave is getting old. All of the press surrounding his twenty-first century output wants to make sure you remember this. Especially if you’re talking about Grinderman, a project whose entire aim appears to be re-creating Cave as a sort of Tasmanian Devil of depravity, a maniac raging and sputtering at the twin wells of pathos and weakness inherent to his character. But, as usual, the standard critical discourse on an artist fails to take into account anything that would call the prescribed narrative into question. Grinderman has been much perceived as an unforeseeable, utterly shocking turn for the now fifty-five year old rocker to make. There is certainly some truth to this. 2001′s No More Shall We Part was a turn towards a more baroque, folk-influenced sound, one particularly suited to drawing out the poignancy and tenderness the irascible Cave has always been capable of. This tendency began even earlier, with his record The Boatman’s Call, one of rock’s all time great break-up records, and perhaps Cave’s most human work. Of course this step towards tenderness was also regarded at the time as a sign of aging. In fact, it seems more or less everything Cave has done since the Birthday Party has been tied up, in one way or another, with his maturing process. Obviously we’re all beings in time, but perhaps its the sense of Nick Cave as an almost Biblical personality that we look for signs of him growing as ancient as he has always seemed.
What this narrative fails to take into account is that the Grinderman style depravity has been there since the beginning. Sonically, the group falls far closer to Cave’s old project, the singularly outrageous and debased post-punk of The Birthday Party than The Bad Seeds. Nick Cave has made a career out of putting the basest and most frightening aspects of the human experience under a microscope. His career then, is maybe better understood as a constant push and pull between the sort of dignified tenderness of records like The Boatman’s Call and the raging, unstoppable id of Grinderman, rather than some strange arc that sees him constantly evaluating the process of his own aging. To attempt to understand Cave’s music in that sort of autobiographical sense is in the end an unproductive exercise, because that’s not how he writes. We can take the Grinderman project as a genuine expression of Cave’s mental state, but this gets us nowhere. Rather, the ideal way to understand Nick Cave’s output is as being obsessed with the various sorts of decay inherent to the human condition, and aging is perhaps the greatest and most powerful of these. None of it has really been about Nick Cave feeling his age, but rather using his improved understanding of that aging process to add to his arsenal of weapons with which his characters inevitably find themselves cut down.
So why then, did I take the first half of this review to give an overview of Nick Cave’s career and attempt to refute the standard critical discourse around him? Well, because this time, the ravages of aging do indeed seem to be central, in a way that they never have before. Sure, advanced age was indeed a factor in Grinderman, but there was so much else in it, so much violence and lust, sex and terror, that to reduce it somehow to being simply a document of the aging process sold the album woefully short. Cave’s work, despite often being frighteningly direct in its method of conveyance, revels in complexity. His finest albums have been the ones where his sad humanist and rampaging monster sides are in some degree of balance (see: mid-decade masterpieces Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and Dig Lazarus Dig). However, on his newest work, Push the Sky Away, the man crazy enough to give his vicious libido its own side project, the guy who could spend the nineties dating one of the few music personalities as intimidating and mercurial as him and then, upon the dissolution of their relationship, write a career-defining album out of it, doesn’t really show up. Push the Sky Away is mostly the moody, scene-setting Nick Cave, the Nick Cave that shies away from pyrotechnics and moves instead further into esoterica.
The most genuinely frightening fact about Push the Sky Away is that, for perhaps the first time in his career, Nick Cave is making music that could perhaps best be described as “tasteful.” For any longtime Cave fans, this is about as disturbing an adjective as could possibly be ascribed to the man. Sure, there are plenty of albums that don’t rely on Grinderman’s buzzing onslaught, but even at his most restrained, there’s typically something immensely darker just beneath the surface, an obliteratingly powerful rage or lust or despair. Push the Sky Away seemingly does away with that, Cave’s perspective the most distant it’s been in his entire career. So missing all these quintessentially Cave touches, it must be one of his weaker efforts, right?
Well, no, not really. Considering the incredibly deep catalog the Bad Seeds have, not even considering albums by The Birthday Party, Grinderman, and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack work, I can’t see this rising above the middle of the pack, but that’s right now, and the pleasures of this album have only just begun to reveal themselves. It certainly isn’t the best album with which to introduce someone to The Bad Seeds, but it’s also anything but weak. It’s clearest recent antecedents are songs like Abattoir Blues’ “Cannibal Hymn,”Lyre of Orpheus’ “Spell,” and much of the more downbeat material on Dig, Lazarus, Dig, especially the dreamy post-apocalypse of “Moonland.”
That song is perhaps the key to understanding the material on Push the Sky Away. Where “Moonland” takes place in a surreal postapocalypse, Push feels like an album-length hazy fever-dream on the night before the world ends. Burning trees reaching towards the sky recur lyrically throughout the album, and there’s a pervading sense of encroaching doom. Miley Cyrus is dead in a Toluca Lake hot tub, Nick Cave is walking a fetus on a leash, and the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that things are horribly not right, and our days are numbered. Anything that makes half a gesture towards the surreal ends up labeled “Lynchian,” but the descriptor truly applies to this album, with its numerous damsels in distress, inscrutable but vivid imagery, and a pervading sense of something being off, the way it only can in a dream. The only escape seems to be at the bottom of the ocean, another recurring motif. There’s a humidity to this album, rolling in off an ever present ocean.
Musically, there’s none of the raging that has appeared at least sporadically on much of Cave’s work over the last decade, and the tempo is decidedly relaxed. But the crawl of “We Real Cool,” anchored by a growling bassline, evokes the same nocturnal menace of the famously minimalist poem after which it is named. “Mermaids” uses a similarly dragging tempo to create distance, loss, and in addition to the ever-present oceanic imagery, contains a classic Cave line in “I believe in the rapture/for I’ve seen your face.” Mermaids and a rolling ocean appear more in the quiet, intimate, aptly named “Wide Lovely Eyes” and the lascivious, hazy “Water’s Edge.” It seems Warren Ellis has stepped up to the position of Cave’s right hand man following the departures of original Bad Seeds Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, and his violin is everywhere, hallucinatory and droning on “Water’s Edge” and melodic and ascending in “Jubilee Street.”
“Finishing Jubilee Street,” a meta narrative of the sort Cave has recently favored, is the album’s only real misstep, it’s shambling repetition fairly effective in itself, but after a long series of slow songs, is a little exhausting. However, it’s followed by the astounding “Higgs Boson Blues,” an epic that takes place at the literal crossroads of fading cultural legend (Robert Johnson and the Devil) corrupted pop ephemera (the aforementioned Hannah Montana) and terrifying and incomprehensible science (the song’s narrator is driving to Geneva, the location of CERN). It is in this song that the album’s themes of nightmarish pop culture apocalypse are made most clear, and it’s a Cave song for the ages.
The album closes with the elegiac, gorgeous, incredibly subtle title track, and where some Cave albums leave an impression like a boot to the face, this one is more ephemeral, just like the dreams that populate the record. Will it be remembered as a defining album for Cave? Probably not. And, with all the slow tempos and lyrics full of distance and death, one could certainly take it as confirmation of all that “getting old” talk. But there’s a better truth out there, and that’s that Push the Sky Away is simply further proof that Nick Cave is endlessly inventive at exploring the myriad manners in which all things decay.
Review by Ben Klibaner.