It’s hard getting old when you’ve been a rock ‘n’ roll rebel. Few succeed. There are really only two ways to go: you still pretend you’re young and become a laughing stock, or you manage to explore more mature themes whilst still being relevant. It’s hard to imagine anybody in the early ‘80s thinking that the enfant terrible lead singer of The Birthday Party would still be alive, yet alone making his 15th album with his band The Bad Seeds in 2013. And more than that, that each of those releases would be critically lauded.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds new release, Push The Sky Away, is their first since 2008’s Dig Lazarus Dig!!! It’s a welcome return for a man who is never less than interesting and, at his best, surely one of the greatest rock songwriters of the last 30 years. He’s also lucky to have the Bad Seeds backing him, who have always played like a troupe of demented blues men looking for the next whisky bar.
Cave himself has always been in love with the Americana of the swamp and delta blues, as well as the bible black gospel of the Country singers. Cave can be as down and dirty as the best of them and as spiritual as a saint the next moment. He is Johnny Cash prostrating himself before the old rugged cross and he is Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads.
But there is a restraint to Push The Sky Away; at times, it’s as though the band are just aching to break free, and at the drop of a beard hair they’d metamorphose into Grinderman. It has a lo-fi sound. There are loops and there are sounds in the background played on god knows what sort of instrument – as though the Bad Seeds have picked up whatever they can find. It is laid back. It is thoughtful. It is hypnotic.
There is a theme of water running through the album. Not surprising since Cave apparently wrote most of his ideas down at his home in Brighton whilst watching the sea. And at first, it can be hard to grasp the album, as though it is itself a fluid, amorphous thing.
The album opens with ‘We No Who U R’, its title a funeral dirge for language. And when Cave sings “Tree don’t care what the little birds sing” we know he’s talking about the banality of social networking sites like Twitter.
‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ and ‘Waters Edge’ take us into lands of myth. Where the water meets the land has always been sacred places for peoples and Cave takes us there, ever the Shaman, and shows us mermaids and people who take themselves apart, limb by limb, for the local boys.
Cave has always been a great lyricist, which is why he would write a song called ‘We Real Cool’. We Real Cool is a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks about the habitués of a pool hall. It’s short and stunning. Each line starts with the declaration ‘We’. Cave starts his lines with ‘Who?’ This is Cave taking a great poem and turning it around, asking those pool players who know that they are going to die soon, does it have to be this way? Isn’t there another way?
‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is Cave at his best. It is a combination of his intelligence, humour and melancholia. The lyrics are Dylanesque and, just as Dylan name checked Alicia Keys on his ‘Thunder On The Mountain’, so Cave name checks Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (possibly the biggest shock on the album that he is aware who this person is!). It’s a road trip down to Geneva to find the Higgs Boson Blues, starting at the crossroads where he “sees Robert Johnson with a $10 guitar strapped to his back, looking for a tune”. Then down to Memphis where he “take’s a room with a view. Hear a man preaching a language that’s completely new.” He then comes upon “Hannah Montana (who) does the African savannah as the simulated rainy season begins. She curses the queue at the Zulu and moves on to Amazonia and cries with the dolphins.”
You could spend almost as long looking for the meaning behind the lyrics of this song as the scientists have in looking for the Higgs Boson.
The final track, the title track, of the album maybe gives a clue to its formation. Cave is respected critically, has devoted fans, is still rebel cool and makes enough, presumably, to have a good living. Perhaps he doesn’t need ambition any more. He doesn’t want to reach for the sky, but to push it away. To just sit and muse how he got where he got and to contemplate on what now? He sings, “And if you think you’ve got everything you care for, if you’ve got everything and you don’t want no more. You’ve got to just keep on pushing…push the sky away.” And yet, when people tell him that it’s just rock ‘n’ roll, he replies “ah, but it gets you right down in your soul.”
Push The Sky Away is a album where the artist takes time to muse on the world around him. He isn’t reaching anymore. He’s arrived. He’s immersing himself in the myth of the old and the new means of communication. This is a worthy addition to Cave’s impressive oeuvre and I, for one, can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Originally published on Louder Than War: http://louderthanwar.com/nick-cave-the-bad-seeds-push-the-sky-away-album-review/