Many a rather darn grand statement has been made of late; made to buzz insistently about the release of this, the fifteenth studio full-length from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Some have already heralded Push the Sky Away as their most balanced effort to date; others their best. ‘The Bad Seeds themselves made a fairly keen plea for your intrigue a short while ago when they allowed Jubilee Street to slither on out from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where the record was conceived, though only now do the honorary Brightonian bard and his perennially bedraggled cronies paint the full picture. And grand as many a Hogarth it is, too.
To perhaps flout popular belief, I don’t hear Push the Sky Away as their best, though that’s not to say that it’s all that far off it. And although it may appear to dislocate yet further from commonly accepted perception given that the similarities between this and that are few and far by and large, I’ve always perceived Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus to be Cave’s most exquisite start through finish – whether that be spawned of ‘The Bad Seeds, or otherwise. In contrast, I’ve found his divergences into the distortion-addled (Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! or absolutely anything to do with Grinderman) or the woebegone and indefatigably dirgeful (Murder Ballads, or No More Shall We Part) to be inessential digressions from when he’s sowing and a-hoeing his most potent. Which consequently is, to my ears, a mélange of the musically crystalline and the lyrically sanguine – much of which gushes throughout Push the Sky Away.
Though as the clouds part and we press play for a preliminary spin, that ain’t exactly the immediate impact from a record swathed in more fuzzy layers of optimism than we’ve become accustomed to. We No Who U R pertains to that same funereal plodding of yore, as minimal withered Rhodes hues combine with patches of choral soothe and Cave’s inimitably raspy croon. “The trees all stand like pleading hands/ We go down with the dew in the morning” he sighs, his malnourished vocal only egged on and moved to sing by the cushions of harmony underlying its spindly figure. “We no who u r/ And we no where you live/ And we no there’s no need to forgive” they lament in unison, the luscious combining with the lugubrious in the sort of startling matrimony not even death can do part. It’s a macabre portrait, and a ghastly march toward a trembling protagonist – whether physical, or we can but hope figurative.
Yet this is the troupe leading us “down the tunnel that leads to the sea” – or rather the expansive, shimmering brilliance of Wide Lovely Eyes, at which point Cave sheds some light and love on what had once been a jet-black listen. The words of the wraith-like rake are still, thematically, woefully valedictory as his central figure this time comes to “wave and wave with wide lovely eyes/ Distant waves and waves of distant love/ You wave and say goodbye” in its final moments. Elsewhere, the yarn is bedaubed with dismal lines of mermaids hanged from streetlights, and gradually dismantled funfairs. And yet in spite of all the abiding doom, gloom and despair, deep within a pallid hope lingers for this is a song of purgation, and its soft undulations of lightly corroded keys and jarring rhythms prove strangely buoyant even in such context. Catharsis rarely sounded quite so eloquent, hence it begins to be of little wonder that Cave & co. singled out a certain Sharon Van Etten to support them on their upcoming US tour, now commencing next month.
Though up until this particular point, there has been one glaring omission from their newly loaded canon which, when considering circumstance, becomes that bit more luminous and that of course is the initial absence of Warren Ellis. For a man in such fine fettle, with such tangled tales to unravel and such vim in his every pelvic thrust it’s somewhat dispiriting that it takes until the tranquil lull of Water’s Edge for his fiddly strings to intertwine with the unwinding majesty of it all. Here, they rock and roll simply over Martyn P. Casey’s trundling bass tones, their intonation loosely arabesque; their impact as tidal as any a raging splash within the Dirty Three’s absolute number one in Toward The Low Sun. Cave’s interjections of dismembered bodies rambling reveries, his traditional elegiacs meet Ellis’ orchestral flutters on the banks of ruffling drums and tumbling keys on what is both an immediate, and indeed durable highlight. “You grow old/ And you grow cold” the former seethes between chopped lines of “city girls” rakishly “shaking their asses” and spreading “their legs wide to the world like Bibles open” and just as the No Pussy Blues did back in 2007, the wry salaciousness to writhe about his snarled words only serves to suggest that there’s still plenty of momentum left in those wriggling 55-year old hips of his. Though this quite patently isn’t his time to shine nor shag, but instead of his rumpled, somehow almost lupine associate.
And not only is Water’s Edge the first opportunity for Ellis’ influence to pour to the fore, but it also proves strikingly redolent of the spilled lament that is Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone from Toward The Low Sun. It has that quietly agitated quality to it – that now renowned of Ellis. And though it may be an undue overanalysis of sorts, a comparison between the respective titles of the latest records from the Dirty Three and ‘The Bad Seeds is fascinating in itself: for where on the one hand the former find themselves opening up and gazing skywards to grasp at its great wide blue, the latter group interchange attraction for repulsion, and with it introversion – a want for the celestial realm to be shoved up and out into another upper echelon. Is there an increased creative distance separating Ellis from Cave? We couldn’t, or rather perhaps shouldn’t speculate as such though that Warren’s prints should here be rather smudged is, if nothing else, worthy of note.
Though I’m myself digressing now as Cave did then with Grinderman, and it’s on to the skulky brood of the aforesaid Jubilee Street that each and every ‘Bad Seed is at its best: it slowly builds about a jazzy snare repeatedly thwacked on its skinny rim, and Nick’s cavernous groans of an obsessive named Bee equipped with “a little black book” with his name inscribed on its every page. Though as chiming guitars combine with unfurling surges of string, it’s less a case of a collective pushing away and more a rich watercolour clearing of the sky as the album brightens up all but entirely.
Although something of another sulk lyrically (he morosely rues his solitude, conceding: “I am beyond recriminations”), its subsequent couplet of “Curtains are shut/ Furniture has gone” couldn’t be further removed from the overall feel of the song – that which best defines Push the Sky Away. For this is, as has been previously alluded to, about as close as Cave has wavered toward what we may deem his so-called Brighton album. And even though the Jubilee Street in question may be a figment of its author’s imagination refracted back through the vapid reality that is its physical existence (a place he despises and wouldn’t dream of frequenting, were he not bound for either “the library or YO! Sushi”) the feel is not only familiar musically, but also geographically. Or at least will be to anyone to have been to The Great Escape and found themselves in dire need of a hole in the wall.
Not only is Jubilee Street the figurative centre of the album and one which reflects Cave’s persistent past as a devious post-punk miscreant (alongside his present as a local hero of his adopted South Coast), but its unabashed openness also comes across in the album’s sleeve artwork – an incidental photo taken by Dominique Issermann of Cave pushing open the Georgian shutters of his seafront home to expose his disrobed wife Susie Bick, her hair clouding her every feature. Despite its sepia quality and the ambiguity to surround the otherwise exposed Bick, it’s an astonishingly warm and radiant depiction that directly replicates the open lucidity of the song itself.
But the story can be mapped long beyond Jubilee Street: Mermaid, with its dazed and aqueous guitars, is whimsical melancholia at its most refined which, somewhat mystifyingly, comes replete with this woozy sci-fi synth line. Though this instance of outré incongruousness aside, it ties in pretty neatly with some of the frequently recurring leitmotifs of the piece at large: not only does it centre itself around the same specific mythical chimera previously found dangling from its sodden locks in Wide Lovely Eyes, but as Cave begins: “She was a catch/ And you were a match/ I was the match that would fire up her snatch/ There was a catch/ I was no match/ I was fired from her crotch/ Now I sit around and watch” he seems to inadvertently speak so too of that artwork. Bick, nude and amorphous, looks an alluring catch – one freshly spewed forth from the sea, perhaps. And in comparison with the ever debonair Cave – somehow still blackened from his hair follicles to the leather particles smothering his extravagantly heeled soles – they make for an apparently incompatible match.
Though this is again more than probably an excessive examination of the context hiding behind what is, to all extensive purposes, a quite experimental recording from the Antipodean alt.rock mythoi. Similarly We Real Cool, with its lurching bass and strings that glimmer like the still beating wings of a newly crucified butterfly, breaks with their timeworn custom as it flutters skywards toward “the planets” come its subtly exultant chorus, before Finishing Jubilee Street swerves off course like a self-referential oddball. “I’d just finished writing Jubilee Street” he begins, having overcome a bout of nightmarish moans. Musically too, it’s a restive piece – fidgety as a sleepless night though Cave finds himself in “a deep sleep”, slumber in which he fathoms “a bride called Mary Stanford” which just so happens to have been the name of a lifeboat which drastically capsized in nearby Rye, East Sussex to again enhance the notion of this being his semi-autobiographical signature piece of sorts; of his surroundings creeping into his subconscious.
And yet still in spite of this, how much we actually glean of the man behind the persona from his supremely verbose prose remains quite negligible, in that he scratches away only slightly at the enigma – as might a lifetime nail-biter. And Higgs Boson Blues are about as ambiguous as the record gets: “I’m goin’ down to Geneva baby, gonna teach it to you/ Who cares? Who cares what the future brings?” he spits, his slur slathered in undiluted vitriol. Kudos is of course due for the rhyming of Hannah Montana with African Savannah, as indeed is it for the painting of that mental image of a demised Miley Cyrus floating “in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake”, Los Angeles on a rainy day. It’s here as vivid as it is vicious, his sneer smeared over eight minutes of unshackled guttural rumblings though as he pleads he be buried in his “favourite yellow patent leather shoes”, one can’t help but sense that this is just another of his elaborate recitals – a performance as captivating as Ellis’ prolix soliloquies have enduringly proven.
Nonetheless, perhaps we oughtn’t worry as to whether this is Cave exposing more than that typically guarded self-expression previously elucidated. And so too, maybe such explication isn’t as necessary as I’m making it out to be, in the same way that we really shouldn’t strive to rank ‘The Bad Seeds’ records according to some nonexistent objective worth, nor competitively set them against the autonomous works of its individual components. What we do know is that Push the Sky Away is a compelling, and thoroughly cohesive album written of Brighton and recorded of Provence. And ultimately, it is the sound of a band embracing their every previous, themselves, and everyone around them. Wives, ‘n’ all. Thus as they strive to Push the Sky Away, they succeed only in reeling us in yet closer.
Released: February 18th, 2013 [Bad Seed Ltd.]