Push the Sky Away
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Push the Sky Away
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Push the Sky Away is the 15th official album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but it could almost be their first. After 30 years together, the band has effectively come full circle, having completed its evolution from untamed beast to rock dignitary and, via the fearsome alter-ego offshoot Grinderman, back again. Factor in the recent resignation of Mick Harvey (Cave’s right hand man since their Boys Next Door days in the late 1970s), and the sudden deep-sixing of Grinderman (as a recording entity, at least), and the Bad Seeds’ reliably black essence now more closely resembles a blank canvas.
Push the Sky Away scans as the Bad Seeds’ post-Grinderman comedown album, to be filed alongside statelier turns like 1997’s The Boatman’s Call and 2001’s No More Shall We Part. But where the Bad Seeds’ mellow records usually find Cave in pensive, piano-man mode, Push the Sky Away presents an uncharacteristically weightless, eerily atmospheric sound; in lieu of crossover ballads like “Into My Arms” and “People Ain’t No Good”, we have foggy reveries built upon ominously rumbling bass lines, twitchy rhythmic tics, and hushed-voice intimations. It may not erupt with same force as the Bad Seeds’ stormiest gestures, but the underlying menace fuelling it remains.
The approach bears the influence of Grinderman as much as the Bad Seeds’ decidedly more raucous 2008 release, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!. Though Grinderman was often seen as the Bad Seeds’ wild child offspring, it was also a vehicle through which Cave and his increasingly prominent foil, Warren Ellis, could experiment with textures and loops (to the point of spawning a remix album). These production intricacies form the bedrock of Push the Sky Away, which is less a showcase for Bad Seeds’ powerhouse prowess than a reconstructed fever-dream memory of it, transmuting the familiar into something foreign. There’s a sense of the Bad Seeds expanding their sound and unlearning it at the same time. (Drummer Jim Sclavunos wins the Take One for the Team Award here, tempering his usual thunderous thrust for stragetically timed snare-rim taps and brushed-skin driftiness.)
The freer, more exploratory bent extends to Cave’s lyric sheet. True to the album’s desolate, dead-of-night air, his songs are less narratively focussed, more stream-of-consciousness haze, countering Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!’s gritty urban milieu with impressionistic images of mermaids and the sea that reinforce the sense of a mind floating away. Tellingly, Cave has said his writing for the album was inspired by “Googling curiosities,” and his lyrical logic follows the same circuitous path as an extended, after-hours web-surfing session, bouncing between subjects profound and frivolous, indulging life-long obsessions and newfound, fleeting fascinations. Bad Seeds albums used to inspire you to reacquaint yourself with folk tales and the Old Testament; this one will have you brushing up on quantum physics, astronomy, and “Hannah Montana”.
That last bit shouldn’t come as a surprise: Over the past decade, Cave has shown a greater eagerness to interact with contemporary pop culture, from the Oprah shout-out on Grinderman’s “Kitchenette” to the comically perverse Avril Lavigne fixation that formed a subplot in his 2009 novel, The Death of Bunny Munro. But where these namedrops have felt like humourous incongruities in Cave’s fire-and-brimstone universe, Push the Sky Away straight-facedly acknowledges how modern phenomena like Wikipedia and Miley Cyrus hold as much sway over the populace as the Bible and Robert Johnson once did, while translating brooding ballads into text-speak and slang (“We No Who U R”). And where more recent Bad Seeds standouts like Abattoir Blues’ “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” and Lazarus’ “We Call Upon the Author” saw Cave writing songs about writing songs, Push the Sky Away goes one meta: The album’s most elaborate track, “Jubilee Street”, is answered by “Finishing Jubilee Street”, a spartan, spoken-word account of a dream Cave had just after he completed work on the former.
For all the album’s wandering spirit, the first eight tracks on Push the Sky Away are neatly structured into two complementary, four-song halves that mirror one another: each comes outfitted with an ominous opening salvo (“We No Who U R”, “Mermaids”), an icy glare that thaws into an open-hearted address (“Wide Lovely Eyes”, “We Real Cool”), and a scenery-chewing set piece (“Water’s Edge”, “Finishing Jubilee Street”) that hearkens back to early Bad Seeds storytelling turns like “The Carny”. (Fittingly, original bassist Barry Adamson rejoined the band following the album’s recording.) The simmering tension of each side is eventually unleashed through a slow-boiling, show-stopping epic. The aforementioned “Jubilee Street” is built upon a repeated “Hey Joe”-like chord progression that, thanks to Ellis’ mesmerizing violin lines, grows more grandiose with each passing cycle, reaching such dizzying heights that you almost forget you’re listening to a song about a murdered prostitute. But even that pales in comparison to side two’s colossal “Higgs Boson Blues”, which begins as a solitary 3 a.m. strum in the vein of Neil Young’s “On the Beach” but, over seven writhing minutes, ends up traversing the entirety of modern history, from “the missionary with his small pox and flu” to the birth of the Devil’s music to the anticipated death of a certain teen-pop starlet who “floats in a swimming pool.”
“Higgs Boson Blues” is named for the elementary particle whose discovery last year was hailed as the most significant breakthrough in contemporary physics, one that essentially provides the missing piece in explaining the structure of our entire universe. But its discovery after 50 years of intense research has also led to something of an existential crisis among physicists, who are now left with no theory to prove, and asking themselves, “What now?” One can imagine Nick Cave asking himself the same question as he entered his fourth decade fronting a deviant rock band that had seemingly mined every last shade of noir. But in this album’s quietly defiant title-track denouement, he finds a renewed mission statement: “If you got everything and you don’t want no more/ You’ve got to just keep on pushing, keep on pushing/ Push the sky away.” Because when you can’t see the sky, you can’t see your limits.
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