Thursday, January 23, 2014

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away

The departure of Mick Harvey was always going to result in a stripped down, minimalistic approach; he was undoubtedly the impetus behind the driving, rock-infused style the Bad Seeds (as well as Grinderman) had taken up in the last several years, culminating in the grinding Dig Lazarus Dig album. And what a relief it is! The best work of this band in the past fifteen years or so has not been the busy, battling hard stuff, but rather the sensible, delicate material epitomized by the No More Shall We Part and The Boatman's Call albums. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Push the Sky Away, an album in which Nick Cave and Warren Ellis can strive to realize this quieter, more spatial approach liberated from the necessities that the constant braying of an electric guitar can impose, is the band's best effort in at least a decade. All of Cave's implicit religiosity, his spiritual elegance, and most of all his inexhaustive profusions of love and life poured recklessly into this album which is not less any 'heavy' or carefully constructed for it; the music, simply composed but wonderfully written, acts as the sublime, innocent reception of Cave's creative genius.

Thematically, the music is by turns sorrowful, incriminating, uplifting, amorous, but it is invariably the passive participant, the obedient servant to the commands and demands of Cave's literary will. There is always an enticing intimacy between the two arts of music and poetry, and Cave reveals this relationship as much as any artist can, namely in subjecting the broader, more indefinite contours of the former to the decisive operation of the latter; the shapeless, meaningless vagaries are thereby carved into shapes and meanings that inform and direct the whole of the composition. Like Schubert transforming Goethe's Erlkoenig into a rousing Lieder, or perhaps like Morrissey imbuing any one of his controversial, ambiguous lyricisms with true aural conviction, Cave and his band add sonorous power and the kind of wholehearted persuasion that a melodious, musical superstructure can offer to the rawness and the philosophic excess of poetry.

With this in mind, Push the Sky Away, being in truth much closer to a collection of thematically connected poems than a coherent piece of non-referential music, begs us to investigate its individual parts one by one, dissecting each song with a particular attention to the integration between poetry and music. This is the (admittedly unfamiliar) course we shall navigate, but we cannot fail to be mindful of the whole, from which every song derives its purpose, its relevance, and its form. The reader must also acknowledge that Nick Cave's lyrics are especially equivocal, frustratingly obscure at times, and positively teeming with totally bewildering or arbitrary allusions, and thus allow for a great many contrasting interpretations. We will do our best to get the best sense of what Cave is trying to say through exploring how the music mirrors its poetic content; we therefore beseech the reader not to discount what is said here for a mistaken interpretation, but rather to look at how that interpretation could be made.

We No Who U R

This song initially portrays the natural world in its sweetness, its undefiled innocence - the 'little bird' singing, the vulnerable, ignorant trees, the way we interact with it by visiting 'with the dew in the morning' are all examples of this. The easy, benign notes of a flute sound out peacefully, naively. But the music is also strange, lost, sombre, purring along with a constant, prominent bass line and an unsettling use of the synthesizer, which rises and falls like a siren losing her voice. We soon discover why in the final stanza, where the trees all 'burn with blackened hands' and we have 'nowhere to rest':
the world is on fire, and we are made homeless by the plight of our paradise lost.

The chorus substantiates the idea that there is someone responsible for this destruction; humanity breathes in the stench caused by a violent industrialism, and the listener is repeatedly reminded by the statement, 'there is no need to forgive', which is itself corroborated by the even, impersonal vocals and the stoic little flicks of the guitar. We can also consider who the speaker might be, that it may just be some force of nature itself, rising up to consume that which has oppressed her; the institutions of man, as Shelley informs us, are temporal, but the mechanics of reality are eternal, lawful, and merciless.

Wide Lovely Eyes

Seemingly about a romantic scandal that excites some small, intimately connected town with rumours and painful gossip, 'Wide Lovely Eyes' is the story of escape and personal freedom from the restraints of a close, suffocating bourgeoisie, and particularly of how the beloved is perceived by the lover. The speaker sings of loving her, but the positive notes of the guitar, the playful ticks of the Rhodes piano, the softly cheerful tone of Cave's voice as well as the hum of the backing vocals tell us that he admires her more for the beauty of her act of departure than any real, mutual eros. He speaks graciously of her dress as she walks with purpose, of her unflagging loveliness as she waves goodbye to everything, and of riding away - everything indicates that the speaker is celebrating her escape, and the way her impeccable, unrelenting personality shrugs off all the flak she attracts by perhaps a few unsavoury nocturnal activities.

That the end of the song, with its depiction, 'dark and closer to the end', of her becoming naked 'on the pebbled beach' is suggestive of death does not taint the overall optimism of the song, for even death is perceived as a triumph, a transcendence of life over life itself. Moreover, the theme of the water and the sea is emphasized in this album as something representative of both vitality and a source of myth and fantasy, so the girl with the 'wide lovely eyes' is not so much dying as she is becoming immortalized as a member of the speaker's own personal mythos; she is becoming one of those mermaids hung by their hair, an image of a greater world that is being shut away by a dim, parochial mentality. The powerful inflections of love and light that Cave weaves into his vocals further demonstrate the speaker's distant, almost indifferent admiration for the girl waving goodbye to the sky, to him, and all the rest as she joins with the 'crystal waves' and the wellspring of all secret, supernatural beauty.

Water's Edge

With a genuinely solicitous motivation seldom heard in modern music, Nick Cave approaches the desperate, dismaying futility of the contemporary social dynamic between the sexes with all the world-weary experience of his fifty-six years. The fixed theme here is that of youthful vanity, and how lust for the body is confused for love of the soul - the former is explicated through transparently physical images, where the 'girls from the Capital who dance at the water's edge shaking their asses' are 'speared', and who willfully 'dismantle themselves'. That their legs are metaphorically compared to 'bibles open' is a significant use of irony in that the love of the soul, which Cave hints at in subtle phrases about 'reaching for the speech and the word to be heard', about the need to be truly, mutually understood, is presently characterized in terms of the word, of lively, sacred communication instead of lively physicality by itself. Cave at once cautions us and illustrates how this kind of love is ephemeral ('you grew old and you grow cold'), and that what we are actually looking for is a speech that is not directed merely towards the animal aim of charming a woman's pair of legs open, but which is left undefined, and undefined because it can only really be understood between two lovers.

The music is therefore of a heavy, serious quality, with a drowning, paddling bass line underscoring a prudential melody played on the violin; Cave himself is an icon of paternal wisdom, his vocals adopting an articulate, concerned character that invigorates the song with profound warning and an essential life lesson. The metaphorical prevalence of the water not only reinforces the sensual attractions of the female sex, but imbues the song with another hidden mysticism: the boys 'search for the word on the water's edge' and 'the girls who shriek at the edge of the water' are at the water's edge because they are close; they are looking for something, but they do not know what that something is, so they lose themselves in what is immediately in front of them, namely, beautiful legs and an opportunity to exercise the pride of youth. Unlike the individual autonomy of the girl with the 'wide lovely eyes', who wonderfully slips into the sea to become a legend in love, the rutting boys and girls dance in sight of Venus but are too fixated on each other's physical allures to notice what they are each trying to say.

Jubilee Street

Instrumentally the heaviest song on the album, 'Jubilee Street' builds progressively into a crescendo of a bold rhythm section flexing its muscles for the first time, prominent keyboards emphasizing the song's lyrical gravitas, and finally an actual guitar riff that adds considerable weight to the message and especially to the aural manifestation of the speaker's climactic experience. This song is about hypocrisy, specifically about the hypocrisy of a pastor, if the words 'I ought to practise what I preach' and his attire ('tie and tails') are any clue at all. One of his whores, Bee, has a little black book which contains the name of the speaker, and therefore obviously presents a threat to him; he eliminates this threat in the final stanza, wherein the speaker is 'alone', 'beyond recriminations', before embarking on some kind of cathartic transformation where he is 'glowing', beckoning everyone to look at him.

This truly is a transformation, since the whole threat of the 'little black book' was that it might reveal himself as a hypocritical scoundrel to 'decent society'; now, after he is in the darkness and having seemingly removed the dagger hung above his reputation, he experiences the mystical 'flight' in which he wants everyone to see himself as he really is, merely another human being who is just as fallen as the rest of us. There is a chance that he killed her, severing the chain to his bastard child ('I have a foetus on a leash') held in her womb, but the more likely interpretation is that he simply surrendered his position in the world, his concern for what 'good society' thinks of him; there is no blackmail against the one who strongly admits all wrongs and strives for honest redemption, even if he has to start life all over again.

The music is faithful to this narrative, keeping pace with an even, steadily increasing rhythm until the climactic engagement in which the speaker confronts the moral state of his personhood. This is when the music takes flight parallel to his own with a heightened instrumental volume and the introduction of a screaming little solo played in the background as a tribute to his epiphany, to his sudden freedom from the shackles of self-righteous sanctimony and public opinion.


This song is lyrically created as though it were a Nick Cave rendition of 'William, It Was Really Nothing' or 'I Know It's Over' or any other song in which Morrissey attacks the marital institution. The story is archetypal: a man and a woman 'were a match', he 'would fire up her snatch', but soon enough he was 'fired from her crotch', a robust means of saying she grew cold and hostile. The rest of the song portrays the speaker in a rather elegant, sympathetic pining for the 'mermaids', the mythical creatures that he imaginatively substitutes for the young, pretty, and unavailable girls whom he sees around him. The mermaids, as mythical entities, are also untouchable; they exist in the fantasies of men, just like the young girls with whom our speaker has no chance in reality.

The music again echoes these visuals, with Cave vocalizing both the quiet sadness that a loveless life brings and the wistful romanticism that the middle-aged man succumbs to in what yet remains a swarming erotic energy. The gentle strumming of an acoustic guitar combined with the ethereal, oceanic notes played from the synthesizer supply a wealth of paradisal pictures like 'seventy-two virgins' emerging from the Pacific. The water is once more used as a source of imaginative life which we use to contemplate the struggles of our mundane reality in the vibrant lexicon of the poetic reality, where the words and ideas actually organize life and make it more significant to us, or at least seemingly so. The band is so successful in marrying the lyrical profundity with a musical honesty that the listener can practically see these beautiful girls who 'sun themselves out on the rocks', and can start to pine for them himself.

We Real Cool

In this twenty-first century, when we are positively saturated with sentimental Christian rock and cliched 'Gospel music', it takes someone who is an allegedly secular individual to attack the vanity of our broken, bloated humanism and present the poetry of a Creator Who is either forgotten or totally misunderstood. 'We Real Cool' is a song that represents a maturation of Cave's ideas such as that expressed in 'God is in the House', wherein the hypocrisy and the smallness of agrarian, 'pastoral' Christianity are satirized. Cave presently alters his angle, and attacks the more prevalent issue of an individualism that is as inflated and egotistical as it is petty and narrow, an individualism that has supposed the mechanical and material enterprises of man as the surrogate for a transcendent Creator. The point of view shifts obscurely from that of 'God' who both earnestly pleads with us to remember Him - 'Who took your measurements from your toes to the top of your head.... Who bought you clothes and new shoes and wrote you a book you never read, yeah you know'. That book is obviously the Bible, the neglect of which implying a profound ignorance as well as a real cause of our ego, our 'cool'.

The tender violin melodies coupled with Cave's usual sensitivity on the piano interact in a sombre, almost mournful sort of funeral grace over a steady bass rhythm that embodies the sad, inevitable love of Our Lord passing out redemption to the undeserving. The absence of percussion allows for a broad spaciousness, imbuing the whole of the song with a stratospheric grandeur, a supernatural stillness that holds the listener in a reverent trance. In a low, humble tone, Cave himself speaks sincerely, asking us theological questions veiled in the fabric of the broad, bedazzling cosmos in order to demonstrate the futility of a secular humanism that has swollen our pride and segregated us from our spiritual foundations.

Finishing Jubilee Street

It has often been said of Nick Cave's poetry that it is surely the product of a narcotically-inspired state of mind, that his seemingly random allusions, his seemingly disjointed narratives are merely the production of a man who is clearly under the influence. Now, he may very well be deeply involved with drugs, but his lyrics are nevertheless perfectly coherent, even decipherable most of the time, despite the frequent oddities we might find therein. In 'Finishing Jubilee Street', however, we are forced to admit that we have not the faintest clue as to what Cave might really be saying. The first
impression is that this is either the second part of the story of the hypocrite and the whore as the title obviously implies, or perhaps that it is Cave himself telling us of his own experiences, his own songwriting process. In both cases we are reminded of a person who is out of his mind in a concrete sense, but mentally alive and active in the sense of a prophet or visionary; ordinary things take on new, symbolic form, little trivialities become essence, and the whole of the human story is filtered into this glowing microcosm.

The verse, 'Hey little girl, where do you hide? You draw lightning from the sky', for example, is positively sublime in how Cave marries smallness with greatness, capturing the mighty and terrible in the frailty of a lost, bewildered youth; the guest appearance of Martha Murphy's soft, whispering vocals contributes a serene subtlety in this as well as other verses. And when Cave says, 'All of this in her dark hair O Lord', he again seizes what is so quintessentially Nick Cave, namely that special trinity consisting of: (1) a particular observation of either something troubling or impossibly beautiful; (2) the confidence of that observation in the subject or his muse, who is almost invariably a woman; and (3) the presence of something higher still, whether it be God or whatever else, which completes the song by making it an apparently more serious venture, a venture that we have to take seriously, even when we cannot make neither head nor tail of what it is literally about.

Higgs Boson Blues


Nick Cave has always been closely associated with the style of the blues, but nowhere is he more successful in invoking the spirit of that vital music than in 'Higgs Boson Blues'. This certainly a result of the music itself, of an excellently crafted linear song structure, in which the rhythm section sways with an intense Nubian weight, and in which the guitar sings mournfully in long, sweaty lines of heated honesty. But this is also because of the seamless unity between the mood of the music and the mood of the poetry, and between the metaphorical usage of the deep South and the actual points that Cave is making about contemporary society.

The first thing that should be mentioned is the title, which refers to the so-called 'God particle' that is hoped by many to offer us a clearer, if more atomistic and empirical, view into the nature of our universe. The essence of this song is about the chaos of a society that has disdained looking at the world mythically and imaginatively, and has instead dissected it, taken it apart piece by piece, and considers merely those things which our senses tell us are 'real' as part of its investigation. This
philosophy is wonderfully encapsulated in the fiery colours of Memphis and the American South, where the legends of meeting the Devil at the crossroads are re-awakened; the selling of one's soul for music, the dreaded, increasing heat, the clocks stopping, and the arrival of a mysterious, dark preacher are all fantastic allegories for the way that we have 'sold out' to the positivistic credo, meekly submitting to the absolute law of materialism.

The idea of the crossroads is especially important if we think of how Cave repeats, 'I am driving my car down to Geneva', the site of the Geneva convention where the discovery of the 'Higgs Boson', the 'God particle', was established. The Swiss city therefore represents a crossroads in itself, the place where we figuratively opened ourselves up to the devil in order to freely, greedily root out the eath's minerals, the inexhaustible supply for our industrial hegemony. We are like Blake's Urizen, or Milton's Satan, eagerly dividing up reality purely for the satisfaction of our rational pursuits; we look to the ground in our infernal lust for miniscule, isolated pieces of empirical information and ignore the heavens and the transcendental ideas which offer true knowledge and wisdom.

Cave especially uses the Negro race as an example for how the 'Higgs Boson blues' devour us spiritually and bodily - 'Here comes Lucifer with his canon law & 100 black babies running from his genocidal jaw' (a reference to the mass abortion of African-Americans), and the later stanza which tells us how the 'missionary' is 'saving them savages with his Higgs Boson Blues'. A culture which has its own mythos, its own spiritual integrity is inevitably corrupted and overwhelmed by the 'small pox & flu' offered by those preaching the Higgs Boson blues, the sermons of technical tyranny. Cave also uses the absurdities of pop culture, the 'Miley Cyrus' phenomenon, to demonstrate the absurdity of our own obsessions, and perhaps implying how we have replaced mythical deities and heroes for meaningless millionaires whose every move or statement is carefully documented for us to enviously celebrate or jeer at.

We cannot emphasize enough just how taut the connection is between the music and its lyrical expression; the dark, heavy, ominous, resigned, and burning qualities of the music perfectly convey the prophetic mentality of the poetry, an alliance that is made all the more potent by virtue of the bluesy style supporting the metaphorical content of Robert Johnson and the mythos of old Dixie. This song is truly rounded out, however, by a couple of subtle, almost implicit verses, namely, 'Who cares what the future brings?', and 'I'll take a room with a view', in which Cave reveals an actual perspective, a means by which we might see this crazy life to its fruition. They suggest, broadly, to become aloof from the turmoil surrounding us, to not get intimately involved with the ways of the world and thereby become dragged down into the mire with the rest of them; they suggest, like a certain Italian philosopher once said, to 'ride the tiger', to participate in the world without becoming an entrenched part of the world, and finally to let whatever happens happen, because whatever it is, it will never touch us, because we know that we are eternal beings living in a temporal place.

Push the Sky Away

After the previous track's bleak, impressive heaviness pounding whatever optimism we might have had about the world into submission, Cave allows us a welcome reprieve, a generous farewell in which we are immersed in a warm, bubbling spring. By far the simplest song in technical, conceptual, and musical terms, 'Push the Sky Away' represents the sigh of relief upon finishing some struggle of the spirit; all of the burdens and personal bereavement and tragic beauties that this album's path has shoved upon us are immediately lifted in this final moment of triumphant individualism, of really knowing who and what we are.

The synthesizer is the most prominent instrument, flighting an ethereal soundscape that promotes the transparency of a cloudless atmosphere; meanwhile the gentle percussion and echoing bass do nothing to solidify this impression, but merely contribute to the noble, poetic image of the push, of pushing the sky away. The children's choir comprise a cherubic support for Cave's benevolent, insistent vocals that come across as eminently believable - he genuinely wants the listener to experience victory, or at least makes us believe that, which amounts to the same thing.

The fact that this was also the title for the album as a whole reinforces the idea that this was meant ultimately to be an album that, for all of its necessary evils and moments of poignant darkness, is essentially a creation defined by its efforts to be good, to see what is beautiful in life. There is, after all, even in this song, something to be defeated, an obstacle to overcome, a sky to be pushed away - and thus the album as a whole is simply a series of varying struggles which all nevertheless offer a hidden resolution. Like the album cover implies, we are shamed, naked, alone in an empty, shadowed hall - but there on our right, Nick Cave holds open a door for us to step into the light. He might very well have been the one who caused us to be left lonely and vulnerable in the first place, but there he is in the end to show us out. Life is only a problem that makes its solution so much sweeter.

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