Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, 'Push the Sky Away' (Bad Seed Ltd.)

8
Push the Sky Away
Critical Mass
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Label: Bad Seed

by Jason Gubbels

The gothic predilections of Nick Cave have always betrayed a Southern tinge. Perhaps it was the vast spaces of his native Australia or the literary household of his childhood, but the easy scares of Bela Lugosi or Horace Walpole seemed not for the lad of Warracknabeal. Far more prevalent over his remarkably consistent 30-year career are obsessions shared with authors such as Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers: detached eroticism, prophecy, salvation, the grotesque, the uncanny, and the folly of man. Foremost among his traits is a fascination with the past that avoids nostalgia even while ransacking a global cultural heritage, from the blues and Appalachian folk to Weimar cabaret and chanson balladeers. If and when this borrowing works, it's thanks to hard-sell techniques the artist in question has exploited since first stunning Melbourne audiences with the Birthday Party's junkie-preacher-from-hell shtick.

Yet what's surprising about Push the Sky Away, the first new Bad Seeds release since 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (and 15th overall), is how cautiously it breaks with tradition, especially given the supporting lineup's altered state. The album serves as a decisive end to Cave's long-running relationships with Mute Records and, more intimately, former guitarist and collaborator Mick Harvey, who recently terminated their three-decade partnership. While the Bad Seeds have always served the whims of its frontman, Harvey's departure marked the first time Cave could claim status as the sole founding member. And despite original bassist Barry Adamson's semi-return, that tear in the fabric was a reminder of how steadfastly this band worked at establishing a sonic identity, the mirror opposite of Mark E. Smith's bravura claim that "if it's me and yer granny on bongos, it's the Fall." With guitarist Blixa Bargeld likewise removed from the ranks, it's left to Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis to serve as primary musical voice, with his drum loops and electronics giving the album its gauzy shimmer, some distance removed from the Dionysian garage rock of Cave's recent Grinderman records.

Not that autumnal moods are Bad Seeds rarities. Despite a reputation for sonic terrorism, ever since the calm waters of 1990's The Good Son baffled a subset of his audience, Cave's output has trended bucolic, a shift from Old to New Testament. And even in a career filled with expansive balladry, there are moments on Push the Sky Away as lovely as anything in his repertoire, from the music-box piano chimes of "We No Who U R" to the "Dress Rehearsal Rag"-strings on "We Real Cool" and the dulcet choruses of "Finishing Jubilee Street" and "Wide Lovely Eyes." While Cave himself would likely admit he's far too New World to fully access the faux-Euro finesse of such idols as Scott Walker, the days of banshee howls and hammy Jim Morrison set pieces are long gone. While this lapsed Anglican still accesses evangelical fervor to make his points, he's more comfortable murmuring like Leonard Cohen (a portentous "Water's Edge") or barking out the talking blues a la Lou Reed (the slow burn of "Jubilee Street"). And blues there are: He routinely returns to the inspirational font of John Lee Hooker, whose iconic boogie scratch shows up throughout.

Of course, fans and detractors alike often claim that Cave's operatics and dinner-theater antics unfairly overwhelm his poetic gifts, but the verse on display here is a show of its own. True, scraps of doggerel are sprinkled throughout — "She was a catch / We were a match / I was the match that would fire up her snatch" is a low point. But the literary gifts of this twice-published author are genuine, and many stanzas reward the close readings demanded of page poets. Note a Gwendolyn Brooks-citing "We Real Cool," or the Blakean echo "Grow old / Grow cold" in "Water's Edge," or the lecherous Victorian of "Jubilee Street" comically agonizing over his blue balls that ache "a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain."

Such amorous concerns slightly belie Cave's claims that the inspiration for Push the Sky Away came from a notebook filled with jottings on the ephemeral nature of Wikipedia dead ends and the general new-media conundrum of sorting the significant from the insignificant: In addition to Moll Bee of Jubilee Street, one notes flirtatious mermaids waving just offshore, city girls tempting yokels with "legs wide to the world / like bibles open," and multiple allusions to the houri of Islamic paradise ("Wide Lovely Eyes," "72 virgins on a chain"). There's also, you know, the cover. But he knows how to make his quirky research pay dividends, too, populating a dream sequence with a bride named Mary Stanford, an homage to a lifeboat of the same name that capsized off the coast of Rye, decimating the labor force of an East Sussex fishing village whose geography claims nearly as many mermaid references as this siren-choked album.

That's a rather droll joke, if indeed it was intended as one. Cave's keen sense of humor gets routinely marginalized, so it's disappointing to note the presence of only one real comic turn in the oversize tradition of past triumphs like Goth send-up "Release the Bats," trad/arr desecration "Stagger Lee," or Miltonian charge "We Call Upon the Author to Explain." But at nearly eight minutes, "Higgs Boson Blues" serves as a shaggy-dog centerpiece worthy of Bob Dylan stuck inside Mobile, and not merely thanks to clever throwaway lines like, "Here comes Lucifer / With his canon law." Croaking casually over a minor-key lope, some everyman asks, "Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson blues?" before bragging about going down to Geneva as if he's laid plans to swing by Rosedale on his way to the Large Hadron Collider. Robert Johnson, the Lorraine Hotel of Memphis, and Hannah Montana in the African Savannah pass in the night before the narrative fades on an image of Miley Cyrus soaking in her Toluca Lake swimming pool. It's all keyed to levels of absurdity wholly appropriate to any cautionary tale of man's dalliances with the God particle.

It's also exactly the kind of high/low dichotomy we've come to expect from a rock figure who'll chat about Strindberg's prose works before dredging up something called "No Pussy Blues." So remember that nearly everything he says cuts both ways. When Push the Sky Away's atmospheric title cut signals the album's end, Cave trots out a familiar trope: "Some people say it's just rock'n'roll / But it gets you right down to your soul." He mutters this like he’s staking out the moral high ground, which might be the best joke of this particular batch. As always, just beyond Cave's solemnity, there's wicked and lovely fun to be had.

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