Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away review

Secret Meeting score: 91

by Joseph Purcell

Demonic, satanic and possessed – the three words most commonly used to describe Nick Cave. While not inaccurate, they fail to capture both his genius and his incredible crew of misfit/motley individuals, The Bad Seeds. My personal awakening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came on a compilation while I was at college – a strange route for me, but as a college kid short of money this record was the perfect taster and introduction to the music of Cave, Elliott Smith and numerous others who I have gone on to cherish. The album contained one of Cave’s finest moments, Nature Boy, taken from the fantastic Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus double album. A colossal, thundering song that captured me from the first listen and encouraged me to delve deeper.

Since that point, I have listened endlessly to records of impeccable beauty (The Boatman’s Call, Murder Ballads) and furious sleaze (Dig Lazarus Dig, Nocturama). Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are, to me, the perfect soundtrack to any mood and feasting on their arsenal of music has been an absolute joy. He comes across as a cult preacher type, espousing furious lyrics against a musical barrage. But he is equally adept at creating the most poignant, beautifully constructed lyrics set to soaring sounds that stir emotions deep within the soul.

It is an album that fits with the latter that has captured me the most – 2013’s Push The Sky Away.

It has a hauntingly atmospheric feel to it with an emphasis given to sprawling spaciousness, in stark contrast to the churning guitars of Dig Lazarus Dig and his side project foray, Grinderman. When describing Push the Sky Away, Cave said, ‘If I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push The Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s loops are its tiny, trembling heart-beat.’

The cover image fits the mood perfectly, giving an insight into the joys within. It shows Cave opening a window shutter to illuminate his naked wife, Susie Bick, with a single beam of light, shot in the couples’ own bedroom. It’s an intimate image and provides the perfect introduction to a record personified by sparse rolling soundscapes and majestically crafted lyrical interludes.

Push The Sky Away begins with We No Who U R – a luscious masterpiece of spaciousness that floats along a hushed vocal delivery. A song of beauty, with lyrics creating images that stay with the listener, it sets the tone for an album with an emphasis on subtle threads running throughout. A shift from the powering crescendos that may be consider his signature sound.

Wide Lovely Eyes follows and the immediate sound of tripping muted guitars soar throughout. The song examines a young woman who has become disillusioned with the world before her and the ruin she has witnessed- ‘They’ve dismantled the fun fair and shut down the rides, and they’ve hung the mermaids from the street lights by their hair’. She contemplates what she has left and ultimately reconciles to the idea of suicide, following her down to the beach where she undresses and bids farewell to the world and what it has become – ‘Through the tunnel and down to the sea, and on the pebble beach, your laces you untie, and arrange your shoes side by side, You wave and wave with wide lovely eyes, Distant waves and waves of distant love, You wave and say goodbye’. 

Rumbling in on the crest of a deep pounding bass, Waters Edge – with the exquisite violin playing of Warren Ellis cutting through the tension built from the aforementioned bass – perfectly compliments the hazy feel created both by Cave’s hushed delivery and lyrical imagery.

Jubilee Street  is the record’s centrepiece – a mark of a band at the peak of their creative powers, at ease with their craft and functioning at a level far from the reach of many. It’s a majestic and desolate masterpiece that glimmers with cracks of light illuminating the dark lyrical matter. The song soars on Warren Ellis’s searing violin line , which elevates it to a realm of unbridled beauty, conjuring images of landscapes awash with colour. Lyrically, the song focuses on a prostitute named Bee who is seemingly down on her luck. It illustrates the abuse she receives at the hands of a group of gangsters, ‘When they shut her down the Russians moved in, I’m too scared, I’m too scared’, and how she is looked down upon by all those who believe they are better than her. It’s infused with hypocrisy – ‘All those good people down on Jubilee Street they ought to practice what they preach’. 

The focus then falls on the person who is telling the story of Bee in the first verse. The subject is in a reflective mood, contemplating the wrongs and insincerity that they have shown along with a child that they are left with from their relationship with Bee – ‘I ought to practice what I preach, these days I go down town/ In my tie and tails, I got a foetus on a leash’. They then reflect on where it’s left them – ‘I am alone now, I am beyond recriminations, the curtains are shut’. It’s a tale of fake appearance, of hypocrisy, of social structure. However, deep down the people who visit are all ultimately desperate to satiate their lust and need for love, no matter how dirty or immoral it may be, regardless of their social standing. Cave has created a perfect tale of human darkness lurking beneath the sheen of respectability, an increasingly relevant song in the grisly world in which we find many pathetically desperate for their five minutes of fame, adoration and acceptance.

Higgs Boson Blues follows as an achingly striking hallucination of apocalyptic imagery that manages to link the Hadron Collider, blues guitarist Robert Johnson, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Hannah Montana, Lucifer and Miley Cyrus – who meets a grisly end in typically Cave fashion. Cave himself has described the song as a tale of spiritual collapse, detailing a journey of a man to Geneva who is wrestling with images of the devil (‘well here comes Lucifer with his canon law and a hundred black babies running from his genocidal jaw’), genocide (‘That the Caliphate forced on the Jews’) and burning trees that he sees before him (‘Flame trees lined the street’). The chaotic imagery, as with all Cave’s finest moments, leaves Higgs Boson Blues as a track open to interpretation – another of Cave’s unheralded talents; a pattern that runs throughout Push The Sky Away. True to the album’s desolate, dead-of-night air, his songs are less narratively focused and more stream-of-consciousness haze.

It would be remiss to talk about Push The Sky Away without mentioning the Bad Seeds and the vital role they play in creating the record’s sound. The ferociousness with which they play fits perfectly with Cave and match him for captivation. Warren Ellis, playing everything from the piano to the violin, cuts the image of a possessed old wizard with his incredible beard in tow. He creates sounds from instruments that are so unique that you are on occasion unsure of what he is playing. The Bad Seeds are a superbly talented musical ensemble in their own right. They are an essential part of Push The Sky Away and quite literally the ying to Cave’s yang. They create the perfect canvas for Cave to paint the portraits of emotional turmoil within. So, on this outing, it’s not so much demonic, satanic and possessed, but just as brilliant as always.