“Some people say that it is just rock n’ roll.”
Nick Cave’s career has taken many twists and turns. He seems to radically change direction every few albums, taking us all by surprise all over again. The pair of Grinderman albums and The Bad Seeds’ Dig Lazarus Dig, released between 2007 and 2010, took us back to an earthier, rockier Cave. Light years away from the piano-based Nocturama and No More Shall We Part, they were like a throwback to Let Love In.
In 2013, the moment was right for him to shift gear again. Following Grinderman’s bombast, it was time for the comedown, time to strip it back again. But there was something different about Push the Sky Away, something not heard before. This wasn’t like his previous keyboard-led, scaled back affairs.
Perhaps the catalyst was the departure of his long time partner-in-crime, Mick Harvey. This opened the door for Warren Ellis to step up as collaborator-in-chief. The upshot was that instead of hard rock or piano ballads, we had eerie soundscapes and loops and synths. Of course, it signposted what was to follow with Skeleton Key and Ghosteen. We just didn’t know it at that time.
When you get into it, the thing that strikes you is just how menacing and threatening many of these tracks are. I mean, the first track is called We Know Who U R. If that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is. The feeling continues. Listen to Martyn Casey’s throbbing bass intro to We Real Cool and the magnificent Water’s Edge. The way the bass conflicts with the strings on the latter. Warren Ellis’s downright spooky guitar on Finishing Jubilee Street. This is an album of darkness.
The stand out tracks are Jubilee Street and Higgs Bosun Blues. The latter, inexplicably, describes Miley Cyrus floating in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake. Bizarrely, in this list of albums of the decade, that’s the second reference to Miley Cyrus (see number 21 for the other). Jubilee Street, is I believe The Bad Seeds’ finest seven minutes. It is remarkable in the way it changes tempo, beginning as a very slow guitar accompanied ballad and ends as a full-blown rock anthem. What’s actually remarkable is that you don’t really notice the gradual tempo changes until the end when you wonder how we got here.
Jubilee Street also has the wonderful line, “I got a foetus on a leash“. Like so many of the lyrics here, it is quite unfathomable. This is another unusual development from rock’s great storyteller. I confess that on listening to this album I used to fret about the fact that I couldn’t discern what Cave meant in each song. That all changed earlier this year when I saw him live in his Conversations tour. An audience member asked him about the meaning of his songs and he explained that they didn’t actually mean anything. They are simply words that sound good when put together. Now it all makes sense.
The other highlight is closing track, Push the Sky Away. It is the most beautifully atmospheric piece, as Cave’s voice is accompanied by a mournful organ and a sparse tom-tom beat. When a choir of children join in, it is something to behold. It’s the perfect closer.
As Cave sings on Push the Sky Away (the song) “some people say that it is just rock n’ roll“. But it’s not. It’s so, so much more than that. It’s poetry. It’s high art. It’s a hypnotic soundtrack of the age. It’s a masterpiece. I confess, it took me a while to learn to love it. The first few times I had to come to terms with it. But over time it sunk in. I got it. These days I listen to it all the time – six years after its release.
Nick Cave’s catalogue of work is unrivalled. Nobody else comes close. And I believe that Push the Sky Away sits right at the top of the pile. To my mind, it is his best work ever.