Musician, novelist, screenwriter, actor, Nick Cave is many things but the one thing you could never call him is idle. A true ‘artist’, Cave’s career has spanned various musical styles, from the post-punk of The Birthday Party to the visceral noise rock of Bad Seeds side-project Grinderman, while his literary career has seen him write two full-length novels as well as publishing various collections of lyrics and meditations on religion.
The central focus of his artistic life, however, has been his work with the Bad Seeds, a project which has been every bit as varied and evolutionary as Cave’s wider career. Push the Sky Away, the project’s fifteenth studio album, sees the band scale back the aggressive, garage rock sound of their previous release – 2008’s Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! – in favour of softer, more skeletal arrangements for Cave’s grand lyrical adventures. The album’s haunting mysticism is layered within its spacious atmosphere; setting and scenery are given great attention with not a note out of place.
The album can be cut into two halves which mirror each other in terms of structure. Each side begins at a gentle pace, a melancholy bass line and emotive piano chords providing the backdrop for Cave’s musings. ‘We No Who U R’, the album’s barest moment, sets up this complex beautifully, breaking the album in softly with reverberating chords and a wailing orchestral melody.
Aside from these fragile sounds, all that remains is Cave’s husky, broken vocal which plays out perfectly over the track’s sultry, sombre mood. ‘Mermaids’ begins the album’s second side in similar vein. The track’s fluttering guitar line reverberates over a gentle acoustic four-bar rhythm, while Cave’s frequently eye-opening phraseology pierces the carefully-crafted mood: “She was a catch/ We were a match/ I was the match that would fire up her snatch.”
The two sides each build gradually towards their respective climax. The first culminates in ‘Jubilee Street’, a stunning composition reflective of the album’s overall style and lyrical themes. Its beautiful slide guitar melody is backed by sweeping orchestral chords which, by the track’s conclusion, have expanded to a dramatic, rock-opera intensity. The second leads up to the eight-minute epic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, on which Cave’s eccentric lyricism (including references to Hannah Montana crying with dolphins) plays out over a bluesy riff and rumbling percussion. The track bleeds into ‘Push the Sky Away’ which pulls the album’s thematic threads together, tying the ribbon around the package.
The whole record, as its final track realises, is a commentary on the creative process, a meta-reference to Cave’s own artistry. If the ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ conveyed the paranoia of success, the sense of not knowing where to go next after a defining breakthrough, then ‘Push the Sky Away’ is the antidote: push back the boundaries to think in completely new ways. Cave puts it much better himself of course: “I got a feeling I just can’t shake/ I got a feeling that just won’t go away … And if your friends think that you should do it different/ And if they think that you should do it the same/ You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.”
The Bad Seeds’ fifteenth album is in many ways classic Cave. The recurring themes of religion, love, death and self-destruction crop up time after time, but on Push the Sky Away they formulate inside an altogether different setting, somewhere much more serene and slowed-down. Cave sums up the album himself on the title track: “Some people say it’s just rock and roll, but it gets you right down to your soul.”
…Jack is listening to Iceage – ‘You’re Nothing’