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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Posted on Thursday, 21 February 2013 | No Comments

Failure was never an option. Through his various musical incarnations - the rabid frontman of post-punk nihilists The Birthday Party, the blasted gothic and heroin detrius of the early Bad Seeds records, the melancholic, hard-won beauty of later Bad Seeds records and the priapic, perma-erect mid-life crisis rock of Grinderman - Nick Cave has remained one of the most consistent recording artists of all time, both in the high quality of his output and his subtly shifting yet primally unshakeable persona. Even the one album most Nick Cave fans agree is somewhat below-par, 2003's Nocturama, contains the astonishing, hilarious Babe, I'm On Fire which acted as the first catalyst for the grotesquely comic garage rock that would reach its peak on 2008's Dig! Lazarus Dig!

Even so, the question coming into Push The Sky Away was: where was he headed now? On Grinderman 2, the rich seam of psychotic Carry On material that Cave had been mining for several records was evidently running out of steam, with that record's superb first half spluttering out into lacklustre filler like Kitchenette and Palaces of Montezuma. Much as The Good Son had been the cooling salve to the mounting ills of the Berlin records, as The Boatman's Call had been the intimate, sobering response to the climatic darkness of Murder Ballads, on Push The Sky Away a reaction to the mounting rockist excess of recent Nick Cave records was necessary.

Instead of the 'sad piano ballad album' many had expected though, Push The Sky Away presents a far more intricate and hard to define take on the Bad Seeds sound that brings together the classicism of No More Shall We Part, the humanity of The Boatman's Call and the paranoia of Your Funeral... My Trial whilst utilising a new interest in loops and textures to craft a very different kind of Bad Seeds album.

This is not to say that the last few records have exactly been forgetten though. The text-speak of travk names likes We No Who U R and We Real Cool and classic Nick Cave come on's like "She was a catch, and we were a match / I was the match that would fire up her snatch" show that, whilst slumbering, the beast most definetely dwells within. The album also confirms Warren Ellis's role as Nick Cave's right-hand man in the wake of Mick Harvey's surprise departure in 2009, with Ellis being responible for the loops that underpin the songs, playing most of the instruments in the studio (with many of the other Bad Seeds seemingly relegated to sessionists, if the album credits are anything to go by) and having co-written all the music with Cave, it's not surprising that some of the more stark moments here recall the pair's soundtrack work on The Proposition and other films.

It's this delicate mixture of fragile beauty and barely contained wrath that defines the album, be it the throbbing bass of Water's Edge (reminiscent of Barry Adamson's work on early tracks like Cabin Fever, who in an interesting development has now re-joined the Bad Seeds for the Push The Sky Away tour) or the clanging percussion and haunting backing vocals of Finishing Jubilee Street. Throughout, the streets of Nick Cave's adopted hometown of Brighton become the scene for crazed visions and intoned threats - the London girls "wired to the world, like Bibles open" for the local boys on Water's Edge, the prostitutes and criminals that fill Jubilee Street (as vividly depicted on the track's music video), the "mermaids [hung] from the streetlights" on Wide Lovely Eyes - that relocate the apocalypse of Cave's early work to more earthtly, recogniseable terrain. If Grinderman and Dig! Lazarus Dig! were comic repudiations of middle-age, here the fears and furies of old find themselves creeping into settled everyday life.

Where the first seven tracks of the album build the tension up and up, on the final two Cave and the Bad Seeds instead take the action elsewhere and turn the album on its head. Higgs Boson Blues (which as several reviewers have already observed, has the vibe of a plugged-in Ambluance Blues to it) covers a trip to Geneva to see the Large Hadron Collider that folds everyone from Robert Johnson to Miley Cyrus into its psychogeographic road trip, the band coming as close to their full force as they're allowed on this record as Cave's trip gets darker and more fantastical. The musings on mortality and meanings then carry on in very different from into the record's concluding title track, where over a backdrop of chiming keys and subtle percussion as blank and pristine as the album's cover, Cave concludes:
And some people say that it is just rock'n'roll
Oh, but it gets right down to your soul
You've got to just keep on pushing
Keep on pushing
Push the sky away
If much of the album is defined by unresolved dread and the juxtaposition of suburban normality with the allure of sex and the threat of violence, then the imaginative blast of Higgs Boson Blues and the quiet rallying of the title track amount to a resolve not to give in to, as Matt Berninger put it, "the un-magnificent lives of adults" or to fall sway to the memories of youthful mistakes but to mediate between the two and keep on pushing. It's this attitude that has made Nick Cave such a consistently rewarding artist, and which make Push The Sky Away - if perhaps not in the top-tier of Bad Seeds albums with Tender Prey, Let Love In or The Boatman's Call - such a strong statement from an artist who's pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat.

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