Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
Nick Cave has delivered an album that sits side-by-side with his finest works, writes SAMANTHA CLODE.
Here’s something they never tell you about getting older: It’s the gravity that gets you. Not the decline that’ll see your skin start to sag, but the silent weight of what’s carried inside. Neil Young might have famously written, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, but as Nick Cave knows, as years fly past the demons just bury deeper. It’s a slow burn instead of a sudden fire. Less urgent, but deadlier.
Fifteen albums in and recorded on vintage equipment at La Fabrique, a studio in rural southern France, Push The Sky Away is one of Cave’s best records. At 55, Australia’s dark prince is more productive than ever – film scripts, Grinderman – and with this release (unlike Young) he’s delivered an album that sits side-by-side with his finest works. More subtle in tone and less ballad-y than, say, 2003’s Nocturama, Push The Sky Away is Old Testament with 21st-century blues: Environmental decay, the internet, the economy, pop stars, technology, love, sex.
Nick Launay’s excellent production means the atmospheric sound has such a lightness of touch it’s as if the songs could float away. If, that is, they weren’t so weighed down with the stuff of pre-dawn nightmares – subtle undertows of death, and dread. Songs swirl, every isolated tambourine hit (see ‘Jubilee Street’) and string pluck felt. Mick Harvey made his creative exit before the Bad Seeds entered the studio, but there’s nothing missing here. Over three weeks of live in recording was bassist Martyn Casey, while violin, viola, flute, tenor guitar, synthesiser and loops is all Warren Ellis, Thomas Wydler is on drums and Cave’s Grinderman cohort Jim Sclavunos is on percussion.
Opener ‘We No Who U R’ is the record at its most relaxed – musically, anyway – a nature-versus-man portrait, where trees “stand like pleading hands” as a children’s’ choir whisper and implore that, “There is no need to forgive.” The ocean makes its first appearance on the gentle ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’, where a familiar Cave theme – women meeting their end – makes an appearance. (“They’ve hung the mermaids from their streetlights by their hair”). (An aside: much has been written about the album’s cover, which features a naked portrait of his wife, model Suzie Bick. Some have taken umbrage over Cave’s “ongoing” objectification of women. Oh please: if an artist and husband can’t find beauty and a muse in his own partner, then mankind is doomed.)
Track three is a corker. The city girls and local boys in the restless seaside ‘Water’s Edge’ don’t realise what lies underneath their harbour, but with the murderous chant, “But you grow old/And you grow cold” – and words like “hard”, “mound”, “seize”, “shriek” – it’s the oldest of dangers: sex and death. “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/Ah, but the chill of love is coming on.”
“Straight to your heart and to your gut, Push The Sky Away hits like a gentle kiss.”
Album highlight ‘Jubilee Street’, rich with Ellis’ violin, tells the story of a brother owner named Bee. “Here I come up the hill/I’m pushing my wheel of love,” Cave sings, before the song breaks free, changes tempos and soaring to flight. Cave revisits his theme on ‘Finishing Jubliee Street’, a song literally about a dream he had after writing the first song, where his deep sleep saw him believe he’d taken a “very young” bride called Mary Stanford.
Arguably the best song on the album (and that’s saying something), ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, starts off idling in a twilight groove: Heat, flame trees, more girls. There’s talk of Africa, New Orleans, missionaries, Martin Luther King. Cave conjures up that devil deal-maker Robert Johnson as the song heats up, Ellis’s guitar becoming more urgent by the stanza, this ode to God, the stars, and man. Wydler builds the tension to a peak as the backing voices raise their volume, and by the time Cave brings the apocalyptic song back down to earth – capturing Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool – it’s a Lynchian dream. Only love will save him: “And you’re the best woman I’ve ever had.”
It’s a mistake to write off Cave’s use of the pop culture vixen – along with an earlier reference to Wikipedia (“The past is the past and it’s here to stay/Wikipedia is heaven” – on track six ‘We Real Cool’), or other such modern day minutiae. Like phrases Don DeLillo drops throughout White Noise, Cyrus’s inclusion isn’t a joke. It was inspired by Cave’s visit with his kids to Madame Tussauds, the songwriter drolly telling The Guardian he was offended that no one was paying attention to “Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the next room”.
The album flows forward and into its closing track, the song Cave titled his album after. ‘Push The Sky Away’ hums with a determined desperation, a droning organ (mellotron?) and muffled drums offering a base for his plea: “You’ve got to just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.” Don’t give up. Don’t give in. It’s quiet and understated, but it’s the most cutting track on the album. Cave gets to the very crux of the matter: “And some people say it is just rock ‘n’ roll/Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul.”
Straight to your heart and to your gut, Push The Sky Away hits like a gentle kiss: life, love, loss. It’s a masterwork by an artist whose horizon feels a long, long way off.