Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Push The Sky Away

Recent years have seen messageboards, pop gossip sites and magazines alike indulging in the pursuit of Brighton-based Nick Cave spotting. Nick Cave spotted waving a foam hand at the panto! Nick Cave photographed going to the shops… in jeans! I’ve always found the levels of incredulity that greet every instance of the Bad Seeds vocalist living a ‘normal’ life rather odd. Perhaps it’s testament to the popularity and strength of the Nick Cave ‘character’ over the past three decades, but do people really expect the singer to be a real-life incarnation of how he’s depicted in Krent Able’s satirical Dr Cave cartoon strip, naked, priapic, and riding a baboon?

This rather reductive analysis of Cave also feeds the idea that he’s capable of only two main modes of operation – the fallen/firebrand preacher of Southern Gothic rock & roll on one hand, and the tinkler of maudlin ballads at the ol’joanna on the other. That logic dictates that after two albums with the frenzied perverted uncles of Grinderman, we were due a quieter, piano-driven and laid-back Bad Seeds album in the vein of Nocturama or The Boatman’s Call.

Push The Sky Away conforms to neither expectation. The first Bad Seeds album written without founder member Mick Harvey, it sees Cave, Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler exploring a wider range of sonics and textures than we’ve heard from the band before. As the cover that depicts Cave opening shutters as his wife Susie Bick walks naked across a room in their Brighton home suggests, it is also one of their most intimate and personable albums yet.

Still overshadowed by the memory of fisticuffs between Mods and Rockers or Fatboy Slim’s huge parties on the beach, Brighton has recently lacked many prominent records that feel so imbued with a sense of the city. Push The Sky Away redresses this ç that cover photo surely couldn’t have been taken anywhere except one of those high ceilinged Regency terraces that go down to the sea in the South Coast resort. The presence of Brighton here must be due to the genesis of many of these songs in a notebook in which Cave noted observations of the world outside those desirable tall windows. ‘Waters Edge’, with its lyrics of "city girls" who "take their bodies apart for the local boys" and references to Duke’s Mound, a popular Brightonian gay cruising area, explore seaside lust – "the will of love/the thrill of love/but the chill of love/is coming on". Driven by Casey’s garrulous bass and strings that ebb and flow, it has the atmosphere of drunk and loveless decadence captured by Patrick Hamilton in superlative 1941 novel Hangover Square. Despite a carefree chug and Cave in fine croon, ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ is all physical decay ("They’ve dismantled the fun fair and they’ve shut down the rides/And they’ve hung the mermaids from the street lights by their hair") and a swim from which someone might not return, as if the Romantics were doing Reggie Perrin: "You wave and wave your wide lovely eyes/Distant waves and waves of distant love/You wave and say goodbye".

It’s tempting to look for geographic clues across the album. Take ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’, a clever, self-referential tip that heightens the sense we’re getting more of Cave the man than Cave the gaudy portrait. It sees him singing "I believe I’d taken a bride called Mary Stanford" – might the name be gleaned from the Rye lifeboat that sank with all hands in the teeth of a gale in November 1928?

Such inquisitiveness at the source material for songs is hard to avoid when we’re told that further inspiration for Cave’s lyrics lay in "Googling curiosities, being entranced by exotic Wikipedia entries ‘whether they’re true or not’". Or, as ‘We Real Cool’ has it, "Wikipedia is heaven/When you don’t want to remember anymore". This is where Push The Sky Away really opens up to become an album that embraces both the personal and contemporary hyperreality – in this sense, it’s both the most traditional and most modern Bad Seeds album. Most vivid is ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, where what appears to be a dying man who "can’t remember anything any more" leaps in his car to head "down to Geneva" and (presumably) the CERN laboratory. The lurid journey has visions of the devil, blues guitarist Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana travelling from Zulus in Africa to the Amazon, a gifted monkey, and colonialism… "here comes the missionary/with his smallpox and flu." The chaotic imagery is matched by frantic meter "making the hot cocks/in the flophouse bleed/while the cleaning ladies sob into their mops/while a bellhop hops and bops". Like a vague Wikipedia entry, it’s a song that permits a few interpretations – a battle between faith and reason, modernity’s glut of information ("let the dam break"), or the memoir of a fevered, broken mind.

Perhaps it’s the impact of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ work on film scores such as The Proposition and The Road, but the command of space and dynamic in the music heightens the lyrical impact. This might be quieter than Grinderman’s randy garage hectoring, but these songs still hum with latent power. ‘Jubilee Street’ (one of the Bad Seeds’ finest tracks of recent years) and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ especially transfer well to the live setting, building with as much luxurious pomp as anything from the Bad Seeds canon. Although the piano features throughout, it’s never the lead instrument, while guitar is often used as a scratchy texture, such as on ‘Mermaids’. Meanwhile, the air and space around the clopping percussion and quiet groove of ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ suggests the unusual sticky heat of a beach of stones, and on ‘We Real Cool’ the same technique gives a sense of impending doom around the rumbling bass. The closing title track, meanwhile, is like nothing else we’ve heard from the band before, a space age electronic drone and the occasional boom of a drum. It’s a haunting ending, an unusual twist.

Both Grinderman and last Bad Seeds album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! showed sides to Nick Cave that had previously been obscure, among them a sense of humour often directed at himself that the cliché of the vampiric goth crow never allowed. Perhaps caught up in perceptions of what this group and singer ought to be about, some have baulked at the idea of a Wikipedia-inspired album of more reflective songs. To do so is a mistake, for Push The Sky Away is another silver bullet through the heart of that old caricature. Cave is always the first to give fulsome credit to his band, and they aim true here in the most explorative, coherent and well-realised Bad Seeds album in years. It’s not often you get to say this about a group on their 15th record, but it’ll be fascinating to see where they go next.

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