Available on: Bad Seed Ltd LP
Iʼll confess to being slightly worried by the missive accompanying Push the Sky Away, the fifteenth (!) album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “These songs convey how on the internet profoundly significant events, momentary fads and mystically-tinged absurdities sit side-by-side”, it reads, “and question… whatʼs genuinely important.” I love equally the sturm und drang of Cave and the Bad Seedsʼ most recent record Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!!, the concept album Murder Ballads, and The Boatmanʼs Callʼs agonised love songs. I even like ʻBabe, Iʼm On Fireʼ – all fifteen minutes of it (though admittedly not all in one go). So Iʼm no cherrypicker but even so this album was looking less like a screaming masterpiece and more like a Grimes redux. Add to that the departure of Mick Harvey, the bandʼs co-founder (and Birthday Party member), and you can understand my concern.
Happily, I was proven completely wrong. Push the Sky Away is one of Nick Cave and The Bad Seedsʼ most powerful records to date. Until now, their albums tended to revolve around one of two stock characters: the snarling, horny goth behind Let Love In, the Grinderman project and Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, or Cave the sensitive balladeer, he of ʻInto My Armsʼ and sexy duets with PJ Harvey. Of course, those characters are not the only tools in Caveʼs box, and they often overlap, Push The Sky Awayʼs cover conveniently illustrating how easily romance and prurience blur into one another. Generally speaking, though, one or the other character would dominate a recordʼs aesthetic. Push the Sky Away, however, falls into neither camp. This may be an album of slow songs, but they couldnʼt be further from piano ballads, and though the Swans-like guitars and snarling vocals of more recent albums are absent, they nevertheless inform the deathly impulse that undulates just below Push The Sky Awayʼs surface. The sinister undercurrent is familiar, but the haunting economy that restrains it is entirely new.
The opener ʻWe No Who U Rʼ is one of the best things Cave has ever written. The naked simplicity of the chorus grows more chilling with every repetition: “We know who you are / And we know where you live / And there is no need to forgive.” The instrumentation is beautifully stripped back: the percussion is a sparse, dry clatter, the sheer backing vocals are a far cry from the robust choirs of Abattoir Blues, and the bass is mostly skeletal, functional rather than grooving. Of course you canʼt hear the titleʼs homophonic misspelling, so what I initially thought was a stupid textspeak affectation in fact points self-referentially to the tension between communication on the internet and IRL.
ʻHiggs Boson Bluesʼ sees Cave fully embrace the cornucopia of pop culture, siting its artefacts bathetically close to his more typical epic subjects. Nominally about a dying manʼs last trip to CERN, it might be the most ambitious track of his oeuvre. The amnesia of its opening and closing line, “Canʼt remember anything at all”, throws (space-)time out of whack, so that the boundaries between historical, present and eternal are virtually nonexistent, to say nothing of the division between superficial and sublime. Cave crams into one song the Devil, ancient Egypt, the civil rights movement, a presumably dead Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool, and the fundamental composition of the universe. Itʼs a lyrical miscellaneousness oddly redolent of the internet vortex thatʼs now such a normalised form of media consumption: tabbed browsing; pausing a video halfway through to watch another, falling prey to the lure of sidebars, and “Googling curiosities”.
By squashing the entirety of global history into just under eight minutes, Cave deftly incorporates the internetʼs ability to flatten time and space into his quantum physics theme. That is to say, ʻHiggs Boson Bluesʼ is very #meta. Itʼs also one of the most complex and harrowing songs Cave has written in thirty years. Cosmic and trivial collide again in ʻWe Real Coolʼ, one of the albumʼs strangest songs. Over a growling bassline, ominous string vibratos and honeyed piano, Cave mutters, “Sirius is 8.6 light years away / Arcturas is thirty-seven / The past is the past and it’s here to stay / Wikipedia’s heaven.” Iʼve always been a bit dubious of lyrics with specific technological or cultural timestamps, whether theyʼre MySpace shoutouts in grime tracks or references to Twitter and Google Maps in ʻGucci Gucciʼ. But just as Kreayshawnʼs built-in obsolescence is essential to her charm, Caveʼs allusions fit into the albumʼs postmodern bent, implying the internetʼs levelling of “profoundly significant events” with “absurdities”.
ʻJubilee Streetʼ is another highlight, an oblique tale set to a simple guitar groove that ends with the lyrics, “Iʼm transforming, Iʼm vibrating, Iʼm glowing, Iʼm flying” as guitars crunch and strings swell. Interestingly, this song has a ʻmaking-ofʼ addendum, ʻFinishing Jubilee Streetʼ. In less capable hands, this kind of self-referentiality – itʼs a song about a dream about writing a song, for Christʼs sake – could easily be pretentious, but Cave pulls it off. The Bad Seeds give the song plenty of space to breathe, the instrumentation consisting simply of wooden thwacks, a looped melodic phrase, ominous bassline, and limpid backing vocals. Finally, the bizarre trebly drone and muffled kick drum in the closing track ʻPush the Sky Awayʼ point to yet another new musical direction.
Push the Sky Away doesnʼt quite celebrate the internetʼs ubiquity and weird multifariousness, but it doesnʼt denounce them either. Instead, like the man in ʻHiggs Boson Bluesʼ, it speaks of them “in a language thatʼs completely new”, both lyrically and musically. Iʼm not entirely sure what I expected from The Bad Seedsʼ fifteenth album, but it probably included murder, fucking and the Bible, not a nuanced postmodernist take on the internet as sociocultural phenomenon. The title trackʼs lyrics therefore ring especially true: “if they think / That you should do it the same / You’ve got to just / Keep on pushing / Push the sky away.” It might be their fifteenth album in a 30 -year career, but Push The Sky Away proves beyond all doubt – even mine – that the group is still at the top of their game.