Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
by Ben Stas (Journalism/English), published March 7th 2013
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds project has never entered an official hiatus, but the last few years have certainly felt like one in certain ways. Since 2006, the legendary Australian songwriter has poured much of his energy into Grinderman, a noisy, raw counterpoint to the statelier Bad Seeds. Though the two bands shared significant overlap in membership, 2007’s Grinderman and 2010’s Grinderman 2 showcased a rougher, looser side of Cave and his collaborators than the past decade-and-a-half’s increasingly refined work. Even Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, the 2008 Bad Seeds record in between, soaked up the garage-rock attitude and guitar-heavy sound.
The haunted restraint of Push the Sky Away seems to originate from a different universe entirely. It’s the foggy morning-after answer to the sordid escapades of Grinderman and Lazarus. All three of those records are solid additions to Cave’s decades-deep discography, but Sky feels like something else entirely. It’s simultaneously a return to the quiet, introspective feel of albums like The Boatman’s Call and a total reinvention of what the Bad Seeds can sound like and achieve.
The album unfolds at an unhurried pace with a sound that trades in brash electric guitars for minimalist soundscapes. Throbbing bass lines, light percussion and melodic patterns on keys, violin and tenor guitar characterize the songs. The arrangements feel spacious, granting Cave’s voice and lyrics some welcome breathing room. The minimal grooves of songs like “Water’s Edge” and “We Real Cool” rumble with a sinister urgency, but keep the tension bottled up rather than exploding in typical, primal Bad Seeds fashion. “Higgs Boson Blues” builds momentum and flirts with shifts in dynamics over the course of its strangely riveting eight minutes, but repeatedly settles back into a relaxed interplay of percussion and guitar. The album-closing title track is composed solely from the ambient, droning chords of a ghostly synthesizer.
Push the Sky Away sees Cave and his collaborators composing outside the structure and sound of normal rock songs. The record employs typical instruments for atypical purposes, crafting a sound that shares DNA with earlier Bad Seeds albums, but takes off in its own unique direction. That Cave can still be covering uncharted sonic ground as he rounds off the fourth decade of his career, and third with the Bad Seeds, is impressive in and of itself. That he and the current iteration of the band are still doing it this well is a marvel.
A sense of detachment from traditional songwriting extends from the record’s sound into Cave’s lyrics, which are among his most abstract and engrossing to date. As a lyricist, Cave is first and foremost a storyteller. Even on his most personal records, most songs contain narrative threads to pursue and characters to examine. It’s often difficult to pull any sort of story from Sky’s fever-dream musings, but they don’t suffer for it. The sprawling “Higgs Boson Blues” best exemplifies the fractured mode of the album, weaving scientific allusions between images of Robert Johnson consorting with the devil and a vaguely ominous road trip before concluding with Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool.
“Wikipedia is heaven / When you don’t want to remember anymore,” Cave sings on “We Real Cool.” His fixations this time around tend away from the Biblical and classical tropes he’s so fond of and more blatantly toward modern pop culture and technology. He offers no concrete answers or judgments, but thematic concerns of lost memory and clouded perception point the listener in the same ominous direction as the general undercurrent of menace in the album’s sound.
Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds took a step back from heated urgency with Push the Sky Away, and the subsequent reinvention of their sound has paid off. It’s a sonically stunning album that bears the distinction of sounding like little else in Cave’s enormous discography. It also showcases Cave’s lyrics at their most challenging and engaging, as collections of striking, disparate imagery and dream logic that demand careful repeat listens. It’s the Bad Seeds’ best and most cohesive album since 2001’s No More Shall We Part, and constitutes a true late-career masterpiece.
Recommended Tracks: We No Who U R, Jubilee Street, Higgs Boson Blues