Album Review: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds ‘Push the Sky Away’

For a man capable of anything, there is a whole lot of nothing going on with this record.

That’s not to say that there is not immense talent being presented, or that Nick Cave’s poetry has fallen off. On the latter point he may have improved, at least to my taste, becoming a bit less direct compared with recent offerings. However, it all seems to amount to very little.

Parts of the album are outright bland, though even that would be okay. It would be okay if the album felt sparse and desolate, more atmospheric than punchy, more like a dream. All of that is true, but coupled with the fact that these basic sounds are very mimetic… the whole album feels a little toothless.

The music is interesting only if we grade on a curve, in that it is different for a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds record. In that context this album has a slightly different sound– but with emphasis on ‘slightly,’ because even though the motif has changed a bit it is still music that you could hear in a dozen other places. It’s still just there to create a feeling of gloaming as a backdrop for Nick Cave’s poetry. The music feels secondary.

“We No Who U R” opens Push the Sky Away slow and moody as Cave sings of vengeance, and when the guitar comes in sounding like a wailing siren you start to feel the urgency of the matter. However, on this and a song like “Water’s Edge”, where the music buzzes around stereo channels to create a subdued foreboding, you can’t help but think you’re listening to the score of one film or another.

It’s a very cinematic experience on the whole, feeling atmospheric in the same way a twangy guitar creates atmosphere in a spaghetti western. Musical decisions seem to have been made here in very lazy fashion, as if Warren Ellis would ask Nick Cave what a given song was about and then look up those adjectives in a dictionary of string composition for film. To a degree that makes sense because Nick Cave is a storyteller, and it works well enough, but it leaves things feeling predictably unpredictable, and again, the music feels secondary.

The writing itself is mostly great. There is enough left open to interpretation that you can relate to these songs, and without any of them being so abstract that you would have to question whether or not there was a meaning at all. It’s an artful sort of storytelling that paints a scene without always explaining the plot, and I like that very much on this record.

Lines like “city girls with white strings flowing from their ears” are perhaps unnecessary, as if he didn’t want to use the word “headphones” but didn’t want to risk anyone not getting that he’s just saying “headphones”. It feels like he’s giving the listener a few easy ones so they think they are getting it. Then there are lines like “I was the match that would fire up her snatch” which seem clumsily ribald, but ultimately inoffensive.

“Wide Lovely Eyes” is one of only three songs for me that is completely successful. Over a quietly chugging guitar he sings of a sentiment so simple that the music and lyrics can be so in turn, and still remarkably beautiful. It’s a mournful but not necessarily sad song of love, loss and acceptance, and if this album truly was a film soundtrack I’d like to see that movie.

“Through the tunnel and down to the sea
And on that pebble beach, your laces you untie
And arrange your shoes side by side
You wave and wave with your wide lovely eyes
Distant waves and waves of destined love
You wave and say goodbye”

The other two standouts for me are “We Real Coo” and “Higgs Boson Blues”, for entirely different reasons. On the former the buzzing, menacing strings– which might accompany a murder scene in the desert in the Push the Sky Away movie– give the song a deliciously dark and dangerous appeal. On the latter, Nick Cave weaves several layers of metaphor in a confusing manner that simultaneously challenges the listener while refusing to be taken seriously. So this is what the blues sound like these days.

Overall it’s a record worth a listen, but it probably won’t be a favorite for many fans. If you like Nick Cave you will like this album, if you can’t quite love it. It might be a safe record for the uninitiated to get into, but that might be trying too hard to find positives. It’s fairly unremarkable.

Release Date: February 19, 2012
Image Courtesy of Bad Seed Ltd

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