Nick Cave is undoubtedly one of the most influential and talented musicians working today. Push the Sky Away (now streaming on the Guardian) is his 15th (yes, fifteenth) album with the Bad Seeds, a group of super-cool people spread across the globe forming a loose ‘band’, and although recently he’s been spending his time writing screenplays, composing sound tracks, and performing with his other band Grinderman, boy, has he written a good album.
‘We No Who U R’ opens the record with a restrained groove, a summer night refracted in synths, smelling of whiskey. Few things could be more different from Grinderman’s aggressive mutant blues, and while it’s truly incredible that someone with such a long career can still produce refreshing new music, it’s presented calmly, in slow-motion. The entire record follows more or less in this vein – while emotive, it holds itself back, remaining understated. While there are a few slightly more upbeat tracks, like Cave-does-U2 ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’, the dark, menacing ‘Water’s Edge’ and the throbbing bass-driven ‘We Real Cool’, the record doesn’t run away with itself. There are no crashing breaks, no explosions or sudden climaxes, it simply lets itself wallow in the subtle intensity of its bottled-up emotion.
However, that does in no way mean, that it gets boring or repetitive. Cave’s vocals, as always, are the lynchpin for the album and his dramatic and expressive singing engages and holds attention throughout the album. Despite his limited technical capacity, Cave works well within his capabilities to create atmosphere with powerful imagery and freedom of tone. ‘Water’s Edge’ is twisted, painting debauched scenes where girls “dismantle themselves by the water’s edge”, the ghostly ‘Mermaids’ professes that “I believe in God, I believe in Mermaids too. I believe in 72 virgins on a chain Why not? Why not? I believe in the rapture, for I’ve seen your face on the floor of the ocean”, and Cave allows his voice to creak and strain, dripping with misery in ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, portraying the world crumbling around him.
The music supporting Cave, moreover, although subtle, is incredibly well suited and wonderfully orchestrated. Rather than present themselves as a band, the Bad Seeds really accompany Cave, with delicate instrumental changes ; for example, the ISIS-esque guitarwork over a sparse drumbeat with haunting backing vocals on ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ build organically into layers as Cave wanders between beat poem and fragile melodies narrating a dream. But what’s most important is that the two elements blend together effortlessly. Every re-entry, progression and developing section compliments the structure of each song with strings, merging textures and freedom of form. It’s not about rigidity of verse-chorus structure, but allowing the song to follow its natural course; ‘Mermaids’ is a good example, building into more intense passages before dying down and swelling again.
That said, although such elements of post-punk and post-rock can be found in this approach, the group would do well to allow for some more musical exploration. While it’s very characteristic of the Bad Seeds, the album is so dependent on the vocals that the music is sometimes not allowed enough space to develop – the instrumental sections often come at the end of a song before a fade-out, where they should be allowed some time in between vocal passages during the body of the song. This may, of course, be intentional – the music is, in general, very restrained, and the material is intensely personal and dark. Push the Sky Away appears as the soundtrack of a man struggling with sexuality, depression and madness, which is particularly noticeable at the end of the album, ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ both being written in the first person, and the ending title track, an ambience, is rich with isolation and misery. As such, it’s a fairly minor gripe, but it does make the album feel a little short, which it is, clocking in at just over 40 minutes.
Push the Sky Away may take a few listens to really get to grips with, especially for those new to the group’s music, but it is most definitely worth it. The album is powerfully and artistically written, with so much to dig into, which is an amazing feat after such a long career. As Nick cave says in the final track, “Some people say it’s just Rock’n’Roll, but it gets you right down to your soul.”