Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away (Album Review 2013)

In 2009, Mick Harvey left Nick Cave as the last remaining founding member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. It ended a 25 year career. Their last album together: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was one of their more inconsistent, ending the band's run of form that started in 1994 with the introduction of Warren Ellis (then a guest member) on Let Love In followed by the glorious Murder Ballads. This marked a transition, not only physically but musically, from upstart punks 'Kicking Against The Pricks' to master song-crafters, troubadours and poets - with The Boatman's Call and Cave's tour-de-force No More Shall We Part, still his most beautiful and proficient song writing, they matured and evolved. And in 2004, the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus yielded some of the best songs the band has produced. Push The Sky Away is Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' first album in five years. Distracted by evil-twin side-project Grinderman, and the lure of soundtracks to expand their musical repertoire, Cave, Ellis and drummer Tom Wydler - now the stylistic core of the Bad Seeds - are back to their main, important, focus.

From the outset, Push The Sky Away is truly mesmerising. The combination of Cave's deep, resonating, evocative vocals and the oddly compelling, often hypnotic sounds of bass, drums, guitars, big strings, then tiny hushed rhythms, create an album of songs that absorb rather than enthral. It is dark, with edges of light and shade and, while not as minimalist as The Boatman's Call, certainly echoes its feel and mantra. This conception is augmented by some earth-shattering moments - all building to the mighty opus of Jubilee Street. From stark, lazy guitar-led narrative to mournful strings, through a subtle change of pace - Cave matching this startling effect with the line 'The problem was, she had a little black book; and my name was written on every page...' as the story unfolds, moving from third to first person as the music builds to a glorious guitar/violin crescendo. Leading to this moment, Wide Lovely Eyes and Water's Edge set the cold, desolate tone. The former, a listless, wavering love song - keyboards gliding over cut-glass percussion with Cave almost speaking the lyrics, while the latter unfolds like a horror movie, driven by Martyn Casey's bass and Cave's evocative delivery.

At times Push The Sky Away sounds like the songs are fragments of much bigger ideas, yet the unstructured, loose approach is incredibly effective - the listener is dipping in and out of a collective, wandering consciousness. An exception to this rule is structured opener We No Who U R - instantly recognisable with Cave's breathy vocals against the Ellis flute, and delicate backing vocals. This is haunting, creepy and sympathetic in equal measures. In contrast, one of the album's more serene moments, proving that Cave can still deftly amuse, confuse and delight at every turn, Mermaids is a joyous love song. 'I do driver alertness course, I do husband alertness course, I do mermaid alertness course...' is one of the most bizarre, yet perfect, lines he has written. After the magnificently understated We Real Cool and the stupefying Finishing Jubilee Street, Push The Sky Away ends with the near eight-minute Higgs Boson Blues; Cave becoming more bewildered and frenetic - part mad scientist, part sceptic - as the song progresses. Musically, the mood is matched by the rising guitars and lazy percussion. The title track brings the album to a close in majestic style - a late highlight of contrasting vocals, drifting music and thoughtful tone.

In 2013 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have made an album which sounds unlike anything else. Push The Sky Away is unique in its mood and its execution. It is as if the band made a conventional record of complete structured pop songs, the vocal arrangements and guitar/piano marrying predictably, and then replaced the soundtrack with murmuring heartbeats and subtle, yet mesmerising loops - to create an oddly oppressive feel and texture. Push The Sky Away isn't an album that is pitched for commercial success, nor is it solely for fans and purists; it hits the middle ground perfectly as something different, yet familiar, compelling and relevant. At last it sounds like the chaotic and disjointed Grinderman project has proved to be the necessary catharsis for Cave and The Seeds to polish the jagged edges and make way for this uniquely beautiful, dark and captivating genius.
-- CS

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