This is the first Bad Seeds album since 2008’s Dig Lazarus, Dig!! and the departure of founding member Mick Harvey. Warren Ellis has taken over as Cave’s chief collaborator. So, rather than looking at the last two Bad Seeds album as a signal for Push The Sky Away’s musical direction, a better indicator would be the soundtrack to the film Lawless that Cave and Ellis released last year.
Compared to the last few Bad Seeds albums (and the Grinderman albums), Push The Sky Away is a relatively quiet affair. But the mood and musical approach is much different than Cave’s other ballad-oriented works such as No More Shall We Part or The Boatman’s Call.
Nick Cave spent months pouring over the lyrics to the songs here, and it sounds like it. There are among his most poetic. Often he reverts to seemingly stream-of consciousness, dream-like lyric writing that reminds me of some of the more surreal moments of Patti Smith’s Horses.
The solemn, unsettling We Know Who U R opens up the proceedings. Instead of being anchored by Cave’s piano, the music mostly consists of electronic loops created by Ellis along with bass and percussion…other Bad Seeds still on board are bass player Martyn Casey, drummer Thomas Wydler, along with Jim Sclavunos on percussion and Conway Savage on vocals (former Bad Seed Barry Adamson returns to play bass on two tracks). “We know who you are, we know where you live”, Nick intones ominously. A chorus of young French school children provide backing vocals which only adds to the creepy vibe.
This is followed by Wide Lovely Eyes which sounds like a continuation of the first track. “They’ve dismantled the fun fair and shut down the rides, and hung the mermaids from the streetlights by their hair”, continues Cave in a typically gloomy mood. On this one, the Bad Seeds provided the hymn-like backing vocals.
Water’s Edge continues in a similar vein but with greater intensity in Cave’s voice. There is also an underlying sexuality throughout the track while waves of strings and synths wash in at the end. Beautiful stuff.
Jubilee Street follows and reminds me both of Leonard Cohen (who has spent some time on Boogie Street) and John Cale…hmmm, Cave, Cale and Cohen, now there’s a super group. Cave comes up with more brilliant lyrics…”The problem was she had a little black book and my name was written on every page”.
Nick returns to Jubilee Street later on the track, Finishing Jubilee Street, where he recounts a dream he had writing the original song. Barry Adamson contributes a deep, meandering bass line while the “choir” sings, “coming on down”. Mesmerizing.
The centrepiece of the album is the almost-eight minute Higgs Boson Blues in which Cave manages to name-check Robert Johnson, Lucifer, Hannah Montana and Mylie Cyrus. Oh, and there’s a reference to Martin Luther King’s assassination in there too. Nick is at his story-telling best here.
The title track closes out the album as those omnipresent backing voices lend continue their eerie ways. “Some people say that it is just rock & roll, oh but it gets right down to your soul”, sings Cave at the end of the song, explaining why he keeps on keeping on.
Thankfully he does. Few artists his age continue to explore new musical territories like Nick Cave is doing here. It’s a shame Mick Harvey is no long a part of the band, but Warren Ellis seems to be the right man for the job at this phase in Cave’s career. Push The Sky Away rates right up there with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ best work.
Click here to listen to Water’s Edge from Push The Sky Away: