BY ANDREW HERTZBERG
There are a few things you can expect from a Nick Cave album. It will be haunting, it will be morbid, it will be poetic, it will be dirty, and it will make you feel dirty. His career is now in its fourth decade, ranging from Aussie goth-rock post-punkers the Birthday Party, to the formation of the Bad Seeds in 1983, through the epic masterpiece of the double-album Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, to the more abrasive and confrontational sound of Grinderman. Throughout, Cave has been drawn toward the tortured, the miserable, and the contemplative. On Push the Sky Away, his 15th studio album with the Bad Seeds, Cave is as dark and literate as ever, painting vivid portraits of rape, prostitutes, and mermaids.
In the context of Cave’s long, vast, and dynamic career, Push the Sky Away is ironically a perfect introduction to his work, despite being so late in his oeuvre. Cave is one coin with two drastically different sides: the abrasive, perverted, raucous wildman and the introspective, contemplative, and dramatic guy. Musically, this album is closer to the latter, while not completely straying from his post-punk roots. Cave has always been drawn to the seamy sides of life, exposing a little ray of light on subjects the majority of society is content to leave rotting at the fringes. From “Nick the Stripper,” the bad motherfucker “Stagger Lee,” to the Geneva-bound, blacked out nihilist, Cave continues to create fascinating, in depth characters within the confines of relatively brief pieces. He doesn’t necessarily attempt to humanize them, but are used more of a warning to the listener that these things exist: watch out.
Despite Cave’s affirmation that he is a Christian, his music renders his personal relationship with God ambiguous. When he says “I do believe in God” on “Mermaids,” it isn’t so much a literal statement as that of a hallucinatory vision for these maternal mermaids. It’s the opposite of the Heather Child Cave sings about on Grinderman 2. Much like Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, he uses religious references not to be preachy, but to heighten the impact of his characters’ desperation.
On the new record, Cave’s lyrics juxtapose traditional and religious imagery with modern references. It’s safe to say Cave is the first person to reference particle physics, Robert Johnson, and Hannah Montana in the same piece (the eight-minute “Higgs Boson Blues”), as well as contrasting these concepts with pleas to the Lord, references to Lucifer, and a hallucinatory, writhing anticipation of death. During the Spotify commercials that ruin the pace of the album, you will likely contemplate the meaning of your existence. The most haunting part of the album is during “We Real Cool,” where Cave takes on the persona of an omnipresent being, distancing himself from “your big blue spinning world,” the minimal musical accompaniment adding a grandiosity to the voice that critiques the advantages and disadvantages of technology: “Wikipedia is heaven when you don’t want to remember anymore” and reminds us how far away even the closest stars are from our planet.
While it’s easy to give Cave most of the credit for this album, the Bad Seeds are more than just a backing band. Warren Ellis co-wrote every song and also provides violin, flute, synth, loops and other instruments. Surprisingly, Cave played none of the guitar on the album. Vocally, he is supported by a variety of voices, often repeating mantra-like verses, or providing subtle, wailing moans of a choir. Not only is the album morose, but it even sounds dangerous, like the music is an ancient tome to render a boogeyman or a villain to put you in physical harm: someone is going to break into your apartment, or knock you unconscious while writing a review of the album, or silently create a slow gas leak to foreshadow a future tragedy. This is its final definition of haunting: long after you close your iTunes, this album will stay hidden in every last hair cell in your inner ear.
Nothing about listening to any Nick Cave is easy. It’s anti-social music. Even at his slowest of tempos, he still makes so many punk-rock contemporaries look like wimps in comparison. I have been disappointed repeatedly by musicians who don’t know when to give up in their careers, who churn out late stage crap, who lost their inspiration or their passion or their muse. Thankfully, Cave still has all of these intact.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer on Frontier Psychiatrist, normally covering what’s new and good in literature. Occasionally, he takes a break from reading to listen to an album or two.