Push the Sky Away
I'm under the spell of the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away. I'm hooked. It's mesmerising. And I tell you this not just to share the news but because I didn't think this would be the case.
I'm late to this album - I rushed out to get the Atoms for Peace album (which I love) but I struggled with the idea of buying the Cave album. I just didn't want to hear it. But at the same time I figured I should hear it. It's the 15th album by Cave and The Bad Seeds; I own the other 14, the B-sides collection, Cave's soundtracks, the two Grinderman albums, spoken word discs by Cave, his books....everything...
But I just didn't think that Push the Sky Away would offer anything new or vital. I guess, mostly because, as I said here, just before Christmas, I was in a slight funk when it came to Nick Cave. At the time of that post I had just started reading a book of interviews with Cave, covering 30 years of his career. It was a good book, I liked it and it lifted a bit of the funk. But I wasn't convinced that Push the Sky Away would do anything for me. I had these thoughts as I stood holding the album in one hand, Atoms for Peace in the other. I left the shop on the day both albums were released with just the Atoms for Peace record.
The other day I bit the bullet and bought the Cave LP. I had not heard anything from the album - well, I'd heard one song. And not the whole way through. So it was exciting to have what seemed a slightly polarising record - for every fan who told me I really did need to hear it there was someone more jaded than me, someone just totally done with Cave. Some said it was his best record in a decade, others said it was his worst ever. I hurried home eager to check out the album.
The hinge record in Cave's career is The Boatman's Call. It's another that some fans love and others hate. It is sometimes called out for its Leonard Cohen-isms; as if Cave simply pulled out the 2B pencil and some baking paper, making vague song shapes while dressed as a serious artist.
That record is the hinge - for me - because it really announced The Other Nick Cave. The Boatman's Call is the serious record, the album of ballads to balance the demonic preacher-as-leader-of-a-cosmic-blues-band - the role that Cave knows inside out. There's no one who does possessed more convincingly than Cave on stage; he embodies each song, carries the creep and lurch, owns the pathos, bathes in the bathos, he'll straight-face the silly-joke hokey lyrics and deceptively devastate you. He's a class act. But it is (always) an act.
The Boatman's Call was the sensitive, thoughtful Cave. And for every person who loved it there were others appalled by it. So phoned-in, so faux, so-so.
Since then Cave has done the preacher bit, the barking postmodern blues hollerer, and he's returned to the piano to trickle out the tinkling croon-tunes. He switches, alternates.
Push the Sky might have been another one of those albums - or a plodding return to the Bad Seeds after soundtracks and Grinderman and novels; side-projects galore.
Instead Push the Sky Away is thoughtful and intriguing, wide-eyed rather than wild-eyed. It's also focused, personal and so beautifully restrained.
The Bad Seeds have a new role, no longer just the hair-trigger gospel heavy metal accompanists - though you know they'll never lose that. Here they are subtly prodding at the lyrics with shimmering sounds that loop and lope and guide and caress.
Opener We No Who U R plays out with Martyn P. Casey's bass leading the way in the kindest, gentlest way.
Wide Lovely Eyes and Water's Edge carefully ratchet the tension. Wide Lovely is the sort of song Bob Dylan can no longer write; Water hints at that Tupelo darkness that Cave and the Bad Seeds know above everything else, but it's the slow-burn version, no longer the big-screen blockbuster - this time it's the film festival sleeper-hit, the Italian tragedy that has you intrigued for the duration, then floored as you think back after the screening.
And if Push the Sky has an emotional core, a heart, a centre, a piece de resistance, it's Jubilee Street, sitting on the curl of a guitar lick, Thomas Wydler playing the groove like a Muscle Shoals stalwart, Warren Ellis adding sounds in the way that has perfectly framed Cave's soundtrack ideas across the past decade.
Jubilee Street is so perfectly built; it's Raymond Carver-esque in the way the lines drip-feed the story, the lines interdependent; the slow-build is hypnotic, enchanting, haunting.
Jubilee Street is almost the greatest song Nick Cave has ever written. It's just so absurdly early in the life of the song to bestow that dual blessing/curse. But it probably is the best song he's ever going to write; the last great song for the canon.
We Real Cool returns us to some Bad Seeds staples: Casey's probing bass, searchlight on as it heads out over the hills while Cave's piano sits back to wait for news, Ellis' violin sweeping in the space between the two. It's an eight-minute epic condensed to just four minutes; also cinematic not just in its scope and feel but in the way it ends up feeling like a pivotal scene - it is a pivotal scene within the album; Mermaids has just slipped by almost unnoticed, We Real Cool reminds us that we're listening to something amazing, Mermaids, by no stretch of the imagination is it slight or unnecessary, but it had offered a reprieve after Jubilee Street's searing intensity. We Real Cool returns us.
And then Cave gets meta - and clever - with Finishing Jubilee Street where he references other songs, name-drops from literature, alludes to previous albums, and Barry Adamson steps in with the bass line to propel the song's remarkably lovely creepiness.
Higgs Boson Blues is another highlight in an album of highlights, the band once again only ever hinting at the freak-out moments that used to be trowelled on thickly across previous records. It's the album's only long song too - it is the epic eight-minute-long song.
The closing title track is elegiac, elegant and cautious. It looms (and it's the album's best headphone moment).
And then we're done. Push the Sky Away is over. It's just nine songs, just over 40 minutes - thereby making it perfect, length-wise.
It's been a revelation taking this album in, giving it a home, sitting with it. I still have my issues with Cave, I'm still convinced it's all an act (and I'm mostly okay with that, obviously; I'm a fan) which means I'll dip in and out of his catalogue, at times frustrated or bored, other times so sure he's one of the last greats. Also, I don't like the misogyny - it's across everything he writes and it's here, most obviously, in the album's cover. I'm slightly cross with myself for just letting it slide because I enjoy the music. I think we all do that from time to time though, right?
But Push the Sky Away is an album that marks a major return to form. It's the album I wanted - and the one I wasn't sure I would get; hence my nervousness around buying. I never expected to get the album I expected. Push the Sky Away is what might have happened if Nick Cave had edited down the Lyre/Abattoir double, made it the correct length. Push the Sky Away is breathtaking in many ways, not least for simply marvelling at its own inner confidence. And I'd argue, as I've hinted at several times here, that it's one of the best showings by The Bad Seeds; it's a new sonic, a new direction. It leaves you wanting more. It reminds, just enough, of the power of old, it hints at further new directions - what will happen next? Where will they go from here? - and it sees them creating vivid moods for each song, as well as an overall feel, a hue.
I was down on Nick Cave for a while, probably because though I have always respected him for doing the work - he's certainly prolific - I felt he was throwing too much at the wall and not enough was sticking.
Here he shows his best cards and his best cards only, nine songs that should be here. Nine songs that are so very much here that you're swept up into the world of this album, it circles you, it lures you in, you dance with it - despite the fact that you couldn't really dance to it.
Cave's writing has rarely been better, there's nothing throwaway here, his singing is at a new peak, his band is so well honed, well oiled, well disciplined - so much so as to actually, for once, underplay (but never under-deliver) and it's his finest example of quality control.
Push the Sky Away is my new favourite album. It's nice to feel rewarded at the end of an album. It doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.
But what do you think? Have you checked out Push the Sky Away? Or will you? Did it do it for you? Or were you underwhelmed by the new album from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds?
You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.