Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push Away the Sky (First Impressions)
It’s fair to say that I was exited for this album as its author, Nick Cave, is one of my favorite writers (regardless of medium) and his band the Bad Seeds some of the best players a director could ask for. It’s important to make mention of the later, because although it is common to see Cave’s name of a release (be it songs or film score) this is the first new Bad Seeds album in a very long while. Technically the last was Dig! Lazurus, Dig! but to my mind that was really a Grinderman release, sitting as it does chronologically and stylistically between that side-projects two progeny. This is an important distinction because of the philosophy that powered that project; Nick Cave hasn’t really mellowed with old age like most people do, in fact after a mild middle he and the Bad Seeds came back with some of the most caustic and cavalier releases of the bands oeuvre and Grinderman was the opportunity to take that second wind to its sharpest point and release songs that would have made The Birthday Party blush. Lazurus felt like another example of that energetic youthfulness, whereas this album is the first of the millennium’s releases to really sound like something from an aged and aging band.
Like his equals Young and Dylan did in Twenty-Twelve Cave here releases an album about age, aging and coming to the end of yours; regardless of whether or not he meant it as such. He tackles some of the same subjects in these songs as he has in the past but does so from a new perspective, that of the near pensioner. For example, in Water’s Edge he sings yet again of sexy young girls just not from the perspective of their peers, of the person who seduces them but as a voyeur instead; seemingly acknowledging that he is now out of their range. He has “grown old” and “grown cold” thanks to the chill of love and leaves it to the boys to burn in the heat of it; but then in the opening limerick of Mermaids he is back to the blue boasting of a blustering youth, words much more subtly undercut by references to husbandry courses here than they were in Worm Tamer. I say ‘he’ because for the most part Cave doesn’t attempt to hide himself during the album, it is perhaps the closest that we have gotten to him because it is the furthest away that he sings from.
The distance shown here is one that Cave’s lyrics maintain throughout most of the album’s other tracks; he has almost abandoned the task of embodying a protagonist, perhaps substituting his own person in their place. Either way he is further removed than a narrator who simply sings the facts, he is instead the omniscient being of Jubilee Street and the other little worlds that he has written here, he is the “Good Shepard”. Religion has always played a potent part in Cave’s poetic metaphors and analogies – even though he himself isn’t a deeply religious person – and thanks to the use of Gospel choirs in the recent sound of the Bad Seeds too; this though is something new. Cave speaks as god himself, declaring what will and will not come to pass, what will and will not be forgiven but despite the sin I’m not sure that these declarations ever really get to the soul of things.
Thankfully then the man hasn’t lost his magic touch when it comes to melodies, the songs all sound pretty sensational despite their simplistic orchestration. After the heavy Guitar jamming of the Grinderman albums’s which acted as send-off to original member and lead guitarist Mick Harvey Push is very pared back: there are a couple of slowly-strummed basic chord structures, sharp splashes of other strings, softly hit percussion, some Hipster keyboard and subtle yet Tangerine Dream-esque synth, all of which stand behind and support Cave’s vocals, which he again successfully stretches into some strange places. If you were to simply skim this album it would sound fine but push any harder and it falls apart a little.
Again it comes back to the other side of the song structure, the lyrics. Even while skimming you will notice one strange touch that stands out much more here than it did in say Dylan’s latest album and that is the forced, heavy rhymes, a trick that only works sometimes. The references that he employs – having, apparently written the album while surfing the net or somesuch -are hit and miss too: We No Who U R? Wikipedia? Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus? Hell there is even an obviously postmodernist track in Finishing Jubilee Street: a song about having just written a song that appears earlier in the album. Higgs-Boson Blues combines these two traits, it is both built around a timely reference and refers to an earlier track. Abattoir Blues was the title track of the last true Bad Seeds album and it was a track about our modern life and what the future will bring; both things that this track also displays before it argues that we should dispose them from our thoughts.
Honestly it’s hard to tell at this stage and from this remove whether or not the overt timeliness of the album is a sign of the band showing relevance or irrelevance; on the one hand moving from the medieval to the modern is a step forward, but on the other it only means that we will be able to see exactly when each easter egg becomes outdated (ignoring the few that arguably already have). There is also the question of whether or not the songs are self-aware or simply self-obsessed; Cave doesn’t make this as clear as it could possibly be and that challenge gives the album an interesting edge. As a mere mortal myself – and one who has only heard the album whole a handful of times – I don’t know that these are questions that I can answer at this stage, all that I can declare is that this, to me, is a lesser work of one of the greatest bands and minds of our time.
Though he writes songs the reason that I so love Cave is because of his storytelling, a trait ignored entirely almost entirely by this album, free as it is from plots and characters. Though the compositions are solid the songs are slow and so soft that Push The Sky Away never really grabs you with its sound and the scripts are too shallow to satisfy in the wake of this. Cave can still hum a good tune but in the reach for the speech he slipped and had a fall; but I’ll still be listening to it for a while longer because even bad Bad Seeds is better than most other music out there and hey, they’re albums are some of my most frequently spun, expanding in the way that the singer says here, so perhaps my mind will yet be changed.