TBTS Reviews: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away
Listening to Nick Cave always makes me think in terms of body/soul dualities, and, perhaps inspired by Cave’s own prowess as a writer, I usually try to make them all literate and stuff. Cave’s music is a mixture of sanctity and sacrilege. The prurient and the pious. Erections and genuflections. And so forth.
The latest from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, continues Cave’s tendency to revel in such contradictions. In fact, this album may represent one of his deepest explorations of the actual tensions inherent in humans’ often simultaneous needs to get their rocks off and to get right with God (in Cave’s universe, usually a vengeful Old Testament version thereof). Several prior albums saw Cave’s focus swing sharply toward one direction or the other, either sin and sex (Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, Grinderman) or quests, usually futile, for redemption and love (The Boatman’s Call, No More Shall We Part). It’s important to note here that the search for faith and the search for love are at minimum similar in nature, and at times inextricably bound, in Cave’s body of songs. Both love and faith are sought for their redemptive power, the possibility of solace, the betterment of one’s moral and spiritual self. When Cave is on a kick of writing about chaste, agape love for a woman, his sentiments take on the quality of worship, and when Cave is writing about the quest for faith, the forgiving God for whom he wishes is an object of loving adoration.
On Push the Sky Away, Cave still seems rather preoccupied with matters of the flesh, singing very graphically about sex organs and other body parts being “fired up,” “hot,” and “shaken” enticingly. But sonically, this album has much more in common with the Bad Seeds’ loveliest, holiest, most sweetly aching moments on The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. This combination of Cave’s occasionally pornographic lyrics and the Bad Seeds’ consistently prayerful instrumentation is the source of that depth and tension to which I alluded above. Thus far I’ve found it to be eminently rewarding, and I suspect that Push the Sky Away will eventually settle among the top entries on my list of preferred Nick Cave albums.
I also suspect that other longtime Cave fans’ judgments on Push the Sky Away will depend on what they most want from the guy, and when they see him as being at his best. If you’re devoted to the Birthday Party and the earliest Bad Seeds albums, his guttural gutter years, you may be condemning Cave for going flaccid once again after finally getting fully engorged on Dig Lazarus Dig!!! and the Grinderman albums. [Sorry, I just can’t help resorting to either sex puns or church language with this guy.]
By comparison to you old fogies, I found Cave’s stuff several years later — in the mid-90s, via Let Love In (emo Cave!), Murder Ballads, and stunningly beautiful tracks on Songs in the Key of X (his first collaboration with cosmic genius and eventual Bad Seed Warren Ellis) and the Until the End of the World soundtrack. I then spent several years around the turn of the millennium absolutely obsessed with The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part, the latter of which remains among my top 10 or 20 favorite albums of all time.
So, quite simply, though I do love Dig Lazarus Dig!!! and some of the louder stuff, Push the Sky Away just sounds like what I most want from Cave. From him I want the beauty more than I want the beast. What distinguishes this latest offering is that both are quite prominent on the same album. I find it to be an intriguing turn from one of our best, still vital and essential after more than 30 years of bringing us low, lifting us up, and delivering messages of both blessing and damnation more powerfully than just about anybody else.