Saturday, March 9, 2013

album review: 'push the sky away' by nick cave & the bad seeds

Let's talk about barriers of entry in music.

Because believe me, they exist. For those of you who only listen to mainstream music, there are a whole collection of off-beat oddities that have made tons of great music and yet never have gotten a single major airplay hit. Most of the time this is because the music is weird and inaccessible, or contains disturbing subject matter, or is just so goddamn insane that there's no way that sort of music would ever get airplay. The average music listener won't know about these bands, and odds are, they won't care.

But say you've heard lots of buzz about this band, or they did get that one airplay hit and you're intrigued enough to go on Wikipedia and find out more - only to discover this act has been around for decades and have about seven or eight more albums of material. It's incredibly overwhelming to look at the thick discographies of acts like Radiohead (which is really the most commercial of my examples) or Frank Zappa or The Flaming Lips or Chumbawamba or Porcupine Tree and feel hopelessly lost. It gets even worse when you realize the act has live cuts that are apparently better than the studio albums because of poor production or incorrect mixing or acts that have periods in their discography where they made a fair amount of crap or acts that rely on concept albums that are layered and intricate and need to listened to all in one piece to be understood as an album statement (every prog-rock band EVER). And at that point, most casual music listeners unwilling to make the deep dive will just throw up their hands and say 'Fuck it' and go back to listening to the radio.

And really, you can't exactly blame them. Digging into complex discographies requires a time investment that most people just don't have. People just don't have the time or patience these days, in the days of shuffling and playlists, to wade through albums to find the songs they might like. Now I admit I'm something of a traditionalist here - I like album statements and concept albums, I like it when artists go for that overarching theme in their work that makes all the songs resonate all the stronger - but, once again, not everyone has the luxury of a long subway commute on which to listen to music.

And even with that, I was intimidated when I first considered tackling this project. I mean, fifteen albums worth of material (seventeen if you include the Grinderman project, which I did), and all the type of dense, complicated material that Pitchfork slobbers over? I knew precisely two songs from Nick Cave before tackling this - one from a collaboration with the Flaming Lips (an act that is famously inaccessible, at one point making an album called Zaireeka that I had to remix myself because it was designed to be played simultaneously on four different stereos), and his signature song 'The Mercy Seat'. That song I found on a collection of underground material from the 80s, buried between a Cameleons UK track (that's actually pretty awesome, btw) and a song from The Rain Parade (not quite as good), and while I loved 'The Mercy Seat' (and I still do, it's fucking glorious), I was still uneasy about the challenge ahead of me. It didn't make things easier when I discovered that nearly everyone had a different 'entry point' for Nick Cave's material, and labelled different albums as overrated or crap. 

So I threw up my hands and just started at the beginning with the first album Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds made called From Here To Eternity, the album he made after leaving his punk band Birthday Party. And as much as I like post-punk, I was prepared for an onslaught of dreary, infuriatingly inaccessible garbage.

It's great to be proven wrong. Because Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are fucking awesome.

I'm honestly a little astounded by my reaction to the past couple of weeks cutting through this act's material, because there's a longevity of success and quality with Nick Cave's material that is downright incredible. Since their first album in 1984, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have never made a bad album. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, I'll concede that there are weaker entries in their discography, but never once have they released a genuinely bad album. Acts like Radiohead, R.E.M., U2, The Talking Heads, David Bowie, Deep Purple, even the goddamn Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd have all released albums that could be considered duds. And yes, I'm willing to elevate Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds into the realm of those legends, mostly for the reason that he fucking belongs there.

And now, like every other Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds fan, I'm stuck trying to communicate to new readers where interested listeners should start, and there's no good way to answer that question. If you like material that's more rough and punk, I'd go with The Firstborn Is Dead or, if you're looking for something more familiar, their covers album Kicking Against The Pricks (which I think is surprisingly underrated). If you're intrigued by the American gothic lunacy of some of their more theatrical material, I'd go with Tender Prey or Henry's Dream. If you want some quieter material, The Good Son and The Boatman's Call are both essential albums. And if you're looking for something that just encapsulates who Nick Cave is, his damn near iconic album Murder Ballads (featuring his one near-hit, a duet with Kylie Minogue) is a great place to start. 

Okay, there's your homework - pick up one of those albums I just recommended and listen to it. All of those albums are pretty damn fantastic, and they're a good introduction (my personal favourite is The Good Son, but like Nightwish's Imaginaerum, it's an album that works better if you understand its historical context). You'll want to do this now, because I'm going to go right off the deep end here, because their newest album Push Against The Sky is not an album I'd go into without some context. 

Ready? Okay, here we go.

For those of you who bothered to go to Wikipedia at some point to look up who the hell this Nick Cave guy is, you might have noticed that I didn't really recommend any of his most recent material from the past decade. There's a reason - it's all pretty damn great (even Nocturama, an album that's solid, if a bit patchy at points), but like The Good Son, it resonates so much more powerfully if you get the history. Nick Cave is a complicated guy, and his lyrical influences and themes (God and the Bible, Death, gothic tragedy, relationships of all kinds) require a bit of an introduction. You see, outside of his mid-life crisis project Grinderman (which with its lo-fi aesthetic and dark subject matter, isn't accessible on the best of days), all of NIck Cave's work has built on itself collectively for decades. The evolution of his viewpoints and personality have been one of the most captivating parts of his saga, which means I'm hesitant to recommend albums like Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! or Abattoir Blues or especially No More Shall We Part without listening to earlier material. Once again, it's not that this stuff is bad - it's not, it's fucking great for the most part - but it loses some weight without the history.

The other part of this story has to do with sound - namely because Nick Cave has spent his entire musical career evolving and changing his sound from album to album, and as I discussed above, certain albums of NIck Cave & The Bad Seeds' material tend to have very different feels, and there's a noticeable gulf in the fanbase between those who love the gloriously demented louder material and the quieter stuff. Oddly, as much as I love Nick Cave's borderline ridiculous bombast, I'll wholeheartedly admit his gift for melody and superb hooks (the latter a gift he doesn't use nearly as often) led to The Good Son, my favourite Bad Seeds album.

So when it was announced that his fifteenth album, Push The Sky Away, would be a return to his quieter, more emotional material after three straight albums of insane energy (arguably five, if we're including Abattoir Blues and Lyre of Orpheus), I was immediately interested, although not entirely sure what to expect. His last 'official' Bad Seeds album before this had been Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, a raucous explosion inspired by the Grinderman project but replacing the bratty and horny teenager for the mad apocalyptic prophet that Nick Cave has been for the past decade. So with a return to quieter material, would the melancholy of No More Shall We Part return, or would we be getting something different, something new?

Well, it turned out we were getting something new, because not only did Nick Cave adapt the tightly controlled minimalist musical styling of most modern music, he did it in a way that said a lot about the message he was going for. Immediately, my first impressions weren't of any previous Nick Cave album, but of Usher's Looking 4 Myself, particularly on the 'emptiness'  of the production. There's a lot of slow-burning silence on this album, a lot of space for the music to breathe and be dynamic. This can be expected, because Nick Cave has always treasured musical dynamics on his albums, and here he's using the emptiness to make a thematic point.

But before I get to that, let's talk about the music. Nick Cave's delivery isn't nearly as harsh as he's been over the past couple of years, and I actually like that, as it shows his authoritative baritone can really carry the tracks. And appropriately, his backing singers are carefully timed and measured in order to enhance the atmosphere. And on the topic of instrumentation, 'atmospheric' is probably the best way to describe the tightly controlled, yet gaping spatial nature of his tracks. This album feels big, but not overstuffed with screeching guitars and wild keyboard riffs. It's definitely a major shift from most Nick Cave material, for even his quieter stuff felt much more personal than Push The Sky Away does. 

But indeed, that's the point, and here we have to talk about themes and the lyrical imagery that Nick Cave brings to the table. Chief among them are untamed oceans and space, the breadths of which humanity has plumbed but never quite understood, which Nick Cave aptly links to his thoughts surrounding God. Nick Cave tends to be the kind of performer who you could imagine behind a pulpit howling a fiery sermon, but here he's not looking to preach about his thoughts on God, but really delve into the fact we really know so little. On songs like 'Jubilee Street', 'We No Who U R' and 'We Real Cool', he viciously dissects the airs people put on in public to hide their darkness and fear, and doesn't shy away from including himself in that group, particularly with the damning track 'Finishing Jubilee Street'. That track, while not one of the stronger ones on the album (the other weaker track being 'Water's Edge', which has a nifty theme of cutting down youthful delusions about omniscience, but does feel a bit overproduced), shows one of the greatest human insecurities: when something, or someone, leaves us, where do they go? And while 'Wide Young Eyes' simply feels melancholy in that acceptance of someone stepping into the unknown, there's a real air of fear in 'Finishing Jubilee Street', for maybe it's not someone leaving Nick Cave, but potentials and ideas flitting away, never to be seen again.

An interesting element here comes in his seemingly random insertion of pop culture references, primarily in songs like 'Higgs Boson Blues', where he name-drops Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus of all things. It's a bizarre choice, but upon further reflection, it makes an astounding amount of sense, for Nick Cave's insertion of random facts and lines like 'Wikipedia is Heaven' shows society's obsession with information rather than truth. In fact, 'Higgs Boson Blues' might be the most startling damnation of that obsession in its entirety, juxtaposing bleak post-apocalyptic imagery with his dark ride to Geneva. He never once uses the nickname for the Higgs boson (the 'God Particle'), but it's clear it's on his mind because it all comes back to that simple theme of humanity's delusion, thinking they can all truly understand the universe while there is so much left unexplored and lurking in the darkness. 

And it's that chill primal fear that fills Push The Sky Away, mostly because Nick Cave never chooses to exclude himself from humanity. He acknowledges his faith in God, but on tracks like 'Mermaids' he also claims a belief in the supernatural - because at this point, he can't be sure. If anything, this album is about that great unknown, that truth that we can't possibly know everything, no matter how much we try to delude ourselves otherwise. Yet his thesis statement comes in the title track, a beautiful song that urges him to 'push the sky away'. And while he never states the obvious line 'the sky's the limit', it's clear that's his inspiration - and something he refuses to acknowledge. He believes that there is something unknown out there, and that we as a people should strive to discover what is in that great beyond, and while there might always be something beyond our reach, it doesn't mean we should stop trying.

So yeah, if it's not clear by now, I think Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is goddamn brilliant and highly recommended, albeit not for everyone (Nick Cave is a very cerebral songwriter, and most people might find his subject matter and delivery a little uncomfortable). I suspect it resonates a lot more with me knowing that this melancholy Nick Cave is showing here is such a contrast compared to the rage of his past three (arguably five) albums. But instead of raging against that good night, here Nick Cave shows both his acknowledgement of that night, that dark unknown, and creates the dream of pushing it all away. It's an album rooted in apocalyptic musings of death and the chill, creeping fear of the unknown, restrained tightly because it's the only way the human mind can handle it, but shows the impossible light at the end of the tunnel just the same.

And so I strongly urge you all to check out Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Who knows, maybe those steps into the discography of this man might bring you some new knowledge, hope, and happiness, and help just a little to push the sky away.


  1. Hi Mark! I was looking for an e-mail or somewhere I could contact you rather than a comment box but was unable to find one. However, this article is so amazing and spot on, extremely well-written. I was at a Nick Cave show last night and working on a review write up of it and was trying to think of how to express pretty much what exactly you put all down. So great to see someone else shares the same passion for all facets of music as an experience and with such a great appreciation for it all too. Please shoot me out an e-mail, I had a question for you. Thanks!

    Lindsey Lonadier

  2. Hi Lindsey, glad you liked my review, and I would be definitely down to answer your question - problem being, though, you left me no email address. I can be reached at, if you've got any questions.