February 2013

Arts & Letters

Astral travelling

By Mark Mordue
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push the Sky Away’

We don’t often go on journeys with musicians any more. Not over the length of an album. From iTunes to Spotify, we live in an ocean of musical particles, and are becoming particles ourselves: skipping and playlisting, downloading fragments and mostly listening alone.

In that respect, Nick Cave belongs to another time, when the likes of Neil Young’s On the Beach, David Bowie’s Low and Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man wove an outsider sensibility and the unsettled ambience of an era into a unified set of songs. It may be with his new album, Push the Sky Away, Cave has achieved that goal today. What’s certain is he has produced a record of the same shape-shifting significance as The Good Son (1990) and The Boatman’s Call (1997). Which is to say it is nothing like those previous albums, except in that they broke with all previous expectations and took Cave someplace else.

Push the Sky Away is Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ 15th album. It was produced like their last three in collaboration with Nick Launay, and was recorded on vintage analogue equipment at La Fabrique studio in the rural surrounds of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the birthplace of Nostradamus and the region where Van Gogh painted The Starry Night.

The band are Cave on vocals and electric piano; Warren Ellis on violin, viola, flute, tenor guitar, synthesiser and loops; Martyn Casey on bass; Thomas Wydler on drums; and Jim Sclavunos on percussion. Pianist Conway Savage contributes only vocals. Guests include former Bad Seed bassist Barry Adamson, Groove Armada’s George Vjestica on 12-string guitar, and Martha Skye Murphy and a children’s choir on backing vocals. Ed Kuepper will formally join the band as guitarist when they commence their Australian tour late this month.

This is The Bad Seeds’ first recording as a full band since Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008), their most commercially successful album to date. But it is the 2009 departure of the multi-instrumentalist and Bad Seeds’ co-founder Mick Harvey that stirs anticipation. Can Cave match the highs of his extraordinary catalogue without Harvey’s co-direction? Can Warren Ellis, the Dirty Three frontman, bring to the table as much arranging and playing skill as his predecessor?

At first there’s a sense that Cave and Ellis are simply extending their recent film-soundtrack work; everything has slowed down after the greased rock ’n’ roll charges of Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and Cave’s bluesy prog-metal side project, Grinderman. Hipsters looking for another dark party in the same medallion-swinging vein will be disappointed.

The album soon acquires a depth that borders on the aquatic. Things get defiantly sadder and more mysterious. There are also reflections on the ills of the modern world, from global warming (‘We No Who U R’) to economic collapse (the bonus track ‘Lightning Bolts’) and what might be kindly interpreted as a generational failure to connect with and save our children (‘We Real Cool’). But it’s hardly a protest album; Cave’s message is strangely threatening rather than rousing.

Cave himself describes the album as “real old-school in conception but kind of radical in execution”. Lyrically and sonically, Push the Sky Away operates between nature and technology, past and present, self and civilisation. There is a constant tension, a drifting sense of beauty in danger. This is manifest in the instrumentation, which sets a traditional, if highly cinematic, rock ’n’ roll band atop a bed of Ellis’ electronically sampled tape loops.

The first single and the opening track, ‘We No Who U R’, is a dark pastoral ode to nature’s terminal condition: trees with “blackened hands” and a “little bird” with “nowhere to rest … nowhere to land”. Ellis’ dissonant flute evokes the mournful bird while Cave’s chiming Rhodes piano and an echoing rhythm track elasticise time. The siren-like intercession of Ellis’ violin spins further unease into the quasi-natural reverie. Some unsung lyrics from Cave’s notebook – reproduced with the CD and in the song’s video – invite eagle-eyed fans to get the meaning: “And we want you to burn”, an excised line that turns the children’s chorus of “And we know there’s no need to forgive” on its head. We will all pay for what is happening eventually.

The album’s title track and final song, ‘Push the Sky Away’, returns to this fatalistic theme. It has what sounds like an organ played in some cavernous cathedral and a modest call to arms “to keep on pushing” no matter how bad things may be. The funereal song ends with the refrain “And some people say it is just rock ’n’ roll / Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul.” The sentiment is not ironic. The singer is the “little bird” from the first track, come to sing a bleak yet beautiful tune at the day’s end. Drums work at a heartbeat rate as the song fades away. Keep on pushing: birth, life, death.

What evolves throughout is a song cycle, if not quite a concept album. The glue is intuitive, a puzzle of images and references as Cave seeks to locate himself in the world. There’s the geography of his hometown, Brighton, where he watches the seaside mating rituals of the young from his window like some domestic Odysseus in ‘Water’s Edge’, and the flood of information and history from the internet that he negotiates in ‘Higgs Boson Blues’. The obsessively repeated images on the album are of mermaids, water and stars.

There is also a pair of songs: ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’. The latter sees Cave falling asleep after having written the former. He dreams of taking a young bride called Mary Stanford, and is gripped by a panic to find her on waking. Lovers of Google will discover Mary Stanford was the name of a lifeboat that capsized during a 1928 storm, drowning the entire adult male population of a fishing village off the coast of Rye and sending England into mourning. The song, with its percussion conjuring up a submerged African ceremony, seems to be a primal conversation with Cave’s creative feminine side: “All of this in her dark hair, O Lord.”

‘Jubilee Street’ itself has a seductive mid-tempo pace, recalling what Lou Reed perfected in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. It begins with the story of Bee, a girl who ran a brothel before “the Russians moved in”. Cave’s narrator has been involved with her and now walks the street with “love in my tummy and a tiny little pain / And a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain”. There’s something about people needing to “practise what they preach” that is repeated over and again until he’s back on Jubilee Street again with “a foetus on a leash”. Cave’s protagonist then takes an astral turn. The music swells to an epic 1970s guitar-and-choral breakout, with the singer declaring himself to be “alone now … beyond recrimination … transforming. I am vibrating / I am glowing. I am flying. Look at me.”

At times Cave’s lyrical skills attain that quality the poet Frederick Seidel describes as “a dagger that sings”. You can hear Seidel’s influence in the stacked rhymes that open ‘Mermaids’ – “She was a catch / And we were a match / I was the match / That set fire up her snatch …” Just as the whole thing seems like a crude joke, the song moves into a reverie about magic, loss and love as Cave observes mermaids slipping back into the sea and confesses, “I believe in the rapture / for I’ve seen your face / on the floor of the ocean / at the bottom of the rain.”

‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is the height of the album’s word rush. Ellis’ tenor (four-string) guitar grooves on a sliding strum as Cave groans a line about “driving my car down to Geneva”. There are flame trees, a girl, a black road; it’s hot and “who cares what the future brings”. It appears the singer is off to witness the discovery of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that helps physicists explain the formation of the universe. But he’s really just a modern-day Robert Johnson, a blues man at the crossroads, grabbing what he needs from the best and worst of the world. The song seems to explode as Johnson meets the Devil, and Cave sings, “Dunno who’s gonna rip off who”. En route, we pass through New Orleans and Africa, with allusions to monkeys, AIDS and missionaries, before the song ends in Hollywood, where “Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake”. Everything becomes beautiful and endless and inconsequential, an ode to impermanence and desire. At which point Cave appears to awake from having dreamt his own journey, only to say, “I can’t remember anything at all.”

Mark Mordue
Mark Mordue is a writer, editor and journalist.

Nick Cave in Copenhagen, 2010. © Gonzales Photo / Demotix
Cover: February 2013

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