Nick Cave famously documented his unease with the ageing process in Grinderman’s best song, ‘No Pussy Blues’ – “My face is finished, my body’s gone…” Grinderman are now retired as a recording outfit, but still play live occasionally (those fortunate feckers with festival passes for Coachella in California can see both The Bad Seeds and Grinderman in April), and it seems that Cave has managed to work through those issues, or at least blast them to bits with epic portions of distortion.
The perception of Grinderman as the singer’s last-gasp grope at the spectre of youth is borne out by this latest album with The Bad Seeds, a graceful and elegiac affair that sees Cave come to terms with his place as an elder statesman at last, very much in the vein of one of his heroes, Leonard Cohen, but still his inimitable self.
Push the Sky Away is the first Bad Seeds album since the departure of guitarist and longtime collaborator Mick Harvey, but it also sees the return of the multi-talented Barry Adamson to the fold for the first time since 1986. Unfortunately, legendary Australian guitarist Ed Kuepper – of The Saints and Laughing Clowns – wasn’t part of the band for the recording, but that’s merely an interesting hypothetical rather than a missed opportunity. Kuepper is back in the touring lineup that is returning to Norway to play Bergenfest and Norwegian Wood in June, and Parken Festival in Bodø in August, and the music nerd in me would really like to hear the Bad Seeds with him in the studio one day.
Anyway, back to the non-imaginary album. The opening track and first single, ‘We No Who U R’, begins with an almost ambient dub before gently insinuating itself into your consciousness. Its lyrics are partly about the invasive effect of instant information and constant connectedness – perhaps because of that, Cave’s publicists were able to convince the man to do a twitter Q&A, the irascibly hilarious results of which can be seen here (the last one is particularly good): http://www.dailydot.com/entertainment/nick-cave-hated-twitter-q-a/
The sparseness and restraint of ‘We No Who U R’ set the tone for an album that is sonically subdued, but has a greater impact than any Cave album since The Boatman’s Call. It’s a gorgeous sounding record, too. Producer Nick Launay – who was at the controls for The Birthday Party’s Release The Bats and has on worked each of Cave’s albums since 2003’s Nocturama (including both Grinderman LPs) – is essentially an honorary Bad Seed, and this is his finest work with them.
‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ is the album’s classic, and will make a worthy addition to any future Cave career retrospective. Stately staccato guitar and almost subliminal keyboard accompaniment leave the focus squarely on his voice in the verses, with just wordless backing vocals lifting the choruses. Like ‘People Ain’t No Good’, it’s a case of less is more when Cave knows he’s on a sure thing.
If only because it’s a vivid portrayal of a sleazy thoroughfare that represents the evils of the world at large, ‘Jubilee Street’ owes a small debt to John Cooper Clarke’s classic ‘Beasley Street’. It’s speak-sung with inflections that occasionally call to mind Cave’s fellow Australian songsmith, Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens. Introducing a girl with “a history but no past” who meets an untimely end at the hands of Russian criminals, the slow-burning song builds momentum and intensity until it’s a tour de force – in concert, expect it to equal or even take the place of the mighty ‘Stagger Lee’.
Cave isn’t shy about his creative processes – the “super deluxe” CD/LP/kitchen sink album package includes a 120-page replica of his handwritten notebooks used during the writing and recording process – and ‘Finishing Jubilee Street’ starts with the words “I had just finished writing Jubilee Street, I lay down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep.” Not the most exciting song intro ever, but he soon ups the ante with “When I awoke I believed I’d taken a bride called Mary Stanford” … it’s not a companion piece, but a stroll through one of the many dark rooms in Cave’s mind inhabited by disturbed and disturbing women.
‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is the most hellfire sermon-like song here, but it’s not as fevered and frantic as it might have been if it were recorded earlier in Cave’s career. It references particle physics, Robert Johnson, disease-bearing missionaries, guns and Hannah Montana (the latter two not in the context you might hope for). It’s lyrically dense, almost novelistic, and underlines the fact that there really isn’t anyone else out there who can work with such varied big concepts without sounding like a special breed of wanker.
The album’s title track closes with what could – hopefully not for many, many years – work as Cave’s epitaph: “If you got everything and you don’t want no more/ You’ve got to just keep on pushing, keep on pushing/ Push the sky away.” Long may he wage war on the heavens.