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Monday, February 29, 2016

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- Push the Sky Away

 photo 220px-Push_the_Sky_Away_zpswhiprah7.jpg

Before I write a review, I like to visit Wikipedia. Not to get any solid information. Anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry. I edit them all the time. Generally, I do this when I notice that someone has entered their opinion on what is supposed to be a factual encyclopedia entry, but if I can do it, anyone can do it. The reason I often check Wikipedia before I write a review is that, on the rare occasion that those who have edited the entries have actually cited a source, there is a link to that source at the bottom of the page. If that link isn't dead, it generally leads to an interview or news story with or about the subject of the entry. The entry for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 2013 (and at this point most recent) album, Push the Sky Away, is actually very informative, with plenty of cited quotes from various interviews. In a sublimely meta-point in the Wikipedia entry, a Sandbag UK-quoted section reads:
"The songs on the album were written over the course of twelve months and "took form in a modest notebook" kept by Cave. The notebook contained notes on the album's songs, which were composed from "Googling curiosities, being entranced by exotic Wikipedia entries 'whether they’re true or not'."[6] (The song We Real Cool also mentions Wikipedia by name.) According to Cave, the songs illustrate how the internet has influenced "significant events, momentary fads and mystically-tinged absurdities" and "question how we might recognise (sic) and assign weight to what's genuinely important."
The Wikipedia entry also takes another quote from Nick Cave that verbally traces Push the Sky Away far better than I can:
"Describing Push the Sky Away in the album's press release, Nick Cave said "if I were to use that threadbare metaphor of albums being like children, then Push The Sky Away is the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren's loops (bandmember, Warren Ellis) are its tiny, trembling heart-beat."
This statement is not only a shockingly apt description of Push the Sky Away's sound, but a revelation of the artistic process by which the album was created. Every Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album previous this includes the credit "all songs written by Nick Cave except..." Push the Sky Away's booklet credit sheet says, "all songs written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis except..."
Prior to Push the Sky Away's creation, Mick Harvey, the final founding member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds not named Nick Cave, left the band. Harvey played guitar in the Bad Seeds, taking over sole-duty on that instrument after the band's other guitarist and founding member, Blixa Bargeld, left in 2003. Instead of looking for a new guitarist, Cave apparently decided the band didn't need one.
By this point, Cave and Ellis have forged a close musical relationship, scoring such films of The Proposition, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford together. His implicit trust in Ellis' musical abilities has become so strong, Cave now shares co-writer credit with him in a project that bears Cave's own name. One look at Push the Sky Away's instrument credits reveals this truly is the Nick and Warren show.
Not only does the band have no guitarist, but guitar is barely mentioned in the credits. Two tracks feature a "12-string acoustic guitar," and Ellis is credited with "tenor guitar," tenor guitar being the fourth out of seven instruments listed by Ellis' name. Cave and Ellis have bravely forged ahead to create a new kind of music. What results is a quiet, brooding, metaphysical album punctuated by strikes of lightning. Ellis' loops, steady in the background of the band's previous album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! are now the very bedrock of the songs. The bassist lays a groove on top of them, and Cave a little piano or keyboard. The drummer and percussionist add fine touches, but only fully blossom on two tracks. Ellis embellishes.
This isn't the Bad Seeds of the 80's, 90's, or 00's. This is a completely new entity. Rather strikingly, Cave joins a very rare club, one of which he may be the sole member. Many of my favorite bands came into existence in the late 70's and early 80's. Many of those bands are still playing today. The only one of those bands who are still relevant in 2016 are Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
That, of course, is my opinion, and is not worthy of Wikipedia, but I think that any of those bands' output in this decade proves me correct. My favorite band of all time, who I won't review for another seven letters, is flailing in the ocean of current taste, focusing on technology over art, hiring every hip, hit-making producer they can find, only to produce something decidedly disconnected and ephemeral. Nick Cave is not doing that. Whatever muse he has is apparently timeless and vital. Push the Sky Away, which baffled many critics in 2013, still sounds bizarrely alien and new three years on.
The reason is twofold. One, this music seems to accurately reflect the weight of our times, much the way my favorite band did in the 80's and early 90's. Coupled with that are Cave's lyrics, which are equally reflective, his musings still relevant, interesting, new. He can produce an album like this that continuously baffles and confounds the listener, then rips them apart with its penultimate track, "Higgs Boson Blues."

I must confess, the crashing, existential weight of the song, coupled with the closing title track, whose opening chords sound like the unfathomable grief of heaven, has pushed me to tears on multiple occasions. But again, that's just my opinion. It's also my opinion that Push the Sky Away is a masterpiece that becomes more prescient the more I hear it--much like Cave's seemingly throw-away references to Miley Cyrus. I close these reviews with Cave's own words, taken from "Higgs Boson Blues"

Can't remember anything at all
Flame trees line the streets
Can't remember anything at all
But I'm driving my car down to Geneva
I been sitting in my basement patio
Aye it was hot up above
Girls walk past, the roses all in bloom
Have you ever heard about the Higgs Boson Blues?
I'm going down to Geneva, baby
Gonna teach it to you
Who cares? Who cares what the future brings?

Black road long and I drove and drove
And came upon a crossroad
The night was hot and black
I see Robert Johnson with a 10-dollar guitar
Strapped to his back looking for a tune
Well here comes Lucifer with his canon law
And a hundred black babies running from his genocidal jaw
He got the real killer groove
Robert Johnson and the devil, man
Don't know who is gonna rip off who
Driving my car, flame trees on fire
Sitting and singing the Higgs Boson Blues

I'm tired, I'm looking for a spot to drop
All the clocks have stopped
In Memphis now in the Lorraine Motel
It's hot, it's hot - that's why they call it the Hot Spot
I'll take a room with a view
Hear a man preaching in a language that's completely new
Making the hot cocks in the flophouse bleed
While the cleaning ladies sob into their mops
And a bellhop hops and bops
A shot rings out to a spiritual groove
Everybody bleeding to that Higgs Boson Blues

If I die tonight, bury me
In my favorite yellow patent leather shoes
With a mummified cat and a cone-like hat
That the caliphate forced on the Jews
Can you feel my heartbeat?
Can you feel my heartbeat?

Hannah Montana does the African Savannah
As the simulated rainy season begins
She curses the queue at the Zulus
And moves on to Amazonia
And cries with the dolphins
Mau Mau ate the pygmy
The pygmy ate the monkey
The monkey has a gift that he is sending back to you
Look here comes the missionary
With his smallpox and flu
He's saving them, the savages
With the Higgs Boson Blues
I'm driving my car down to Geneva
I'm driving my car down to Geneva

Oh let the damn day break
The rainy days always make me sad
Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake
And you're the best girl I've ever had
Can't remember anything at all

2013 Bad Seed Ltd
1. We No Who U R 4:04
2. Wide Lovely Eyes 3:40
3. Water's Edge 3:49
4. Jubilee Street 6:35
5. Mermaids 3:49
6. We Real Cool 4:18
7. Finishing Jubilee Street 4:28
8. Higgs Boson Blues 7:50
9. Push the Sky Away 4:07


Neal said...

I can't comment much on Nick Cave (other than occasionally appealing to the part of me that doesn't mind listening to the Doors from time to time, they just don't do it for me for whatever reason), but I've been meaning to bring up U2's latest with you for awhile. I'm assuming that's what those references are to (sorry to bring it up in a Nick Cave post, but hey, I did like the Biggs-Hoson Blues).

I feel like U2's Songs of Innocence is rather hit or miss, much like How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (of their newer albums, No Line and of course All That You Can't Leave Behind are much more consistent), but at the same time, I've enjoyed it when I've had the chance to listen to it. I could give some songs a pass, like California (but that's mostly a lyrical thing... "Santa Barbara" being chanted just kills that opening, to my mind). Even then, what's good about the album is the band is actually pushing new sounds. The reason bands that were once good have those albums that crowds don't care for is because they quit trying... they're almost a "remember that song you like? here's another that kind of sounds like it but isn't as good" band. If that makes any sense whatsoever.

It also feels more completely lyrically. Other than some misses, I actually feel like Bono's more in a groove than he's been in awhile (well, and The Edge, since they've been sharing those credits a lot).

Where Songs of Innocence doesn't work for me, really, is when they bring in the typical "U2 anthem" touches. "Song for Someone" is Bono at a heartfelt moment I haven't heard from him enough in the 2000s (other than maybe "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" from Atomic Bomb... and even then the acoustic version is more where I feel Bono digs into his feelings of loss over his father). But then they bring in some typical Edge anthem guitar 3/4 of the way in that would be great if I haven't heard that in a lot of their other music.

I might be a weird U2 fan, though. I can certainly see the strengths of All That You Can't Leave Behind, but that and Joshua Tree always feel like "popular U2," that people want, and why Atomic Bomb got a better reception than No Line and now Songs of Innocence. But I first connected with U2 in their Unforgettable Fire Days, where they were bringing in varied sounds beyond the three (four? counting Bono's singing? I dunno) piece approach. I love it when they're digging for something more and what results there. I don't think I'm entirely crazy there, either... some of the live versions of their songs where they lose the album polish and go full out emotion can really nail audiences.

Anyway, sorry for the thesis on the subject. I've obviously been sitting on this and wanted to talk about it--feel free to save the discussion for when you get there in... a year? two? Not sure how many albums you have between here and U.

Nicholas said...

I had many bands in mind when I made that reference, though certainly I was thinking of U2, as well (among Echo and the Bunnymen, Peter Gabriel, The Police, etc). I merely meant that the feeling of discovery and innovation I've felt with every Nick Cave album in the last decade has been absent from the new work of anyone else I listen to who got their start in the 70's or 80's.
With Songs Of Innocence, I've had a hard time listening all the way through. I actually enjoyed No Line on the Horizon, though I feel like there is a much better album somewhere underneath what they released. I think that whole Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite thing about U2 over-thinking everything has become extremely apt in recent years. I feel like the band could just go with their gut and put out something new every couple of years, and whatever raw, perhaps unfinished sounding things they released would be more enjoyable than the over-thought, over-polished stuff they've put out the past twelve years. Case in point, I think the best song by far that U2 have released since 9/11 is "Moment of Surrender." It's almost unbelievably good. According to Eno, the band essentially improvised that track in one take and he somehow convinced them not to meddle with it. Eno seems to give the impression that if U2 so chose, they could do that all the time. Instead, there's a five-year wait for something the band have essentially been microwaving long past the cooking-time on the box. Unforgettable Fire is my favorite U2 album for the reasons that I like "Moment of Surrender." Of course I don't expect anything U2 releases today to sound like Unforgettable Fire, but I wish they could re-learn how to operate by the same ethos.
I must point out here in a huge spoiler alert that U2 is my favorite band of all time. I have frequent dreams where I have somehow been chosen to produce their records, and in those dreams I am always shouting at them, "All right, perfect, let's move on to the next one. NO, EDGE, WE ARE NOT GOING TO ADD ANOTHER LOOP AND RUN YOUR GUITAR LINE THROUGH ANOTHER FILTER! BONO, THE FIRST LYRICS THAT CAME TO YOU WERE FINE! WE ARE LEAVING THE SONG THE WAY AIT IS! NEXT!!!"
At this rate, I may make it to U2 by 2019, I hope. Maybe Songs of Innocence will have grown on me by then. I can't think of any of their albums I've been able to move past quite so quickly, except maybe Rattle and Hum.

Neal said...

Yeah, I know what you're talking about with Unforgettable Fire. I have always loved "4th of July" and that was just The Edge and Adam playing together during some downtime, if I remember coreectly. It's so wonderfully eerie and moody.

And sheesh, while they're obviously practiced and polished in concert, they do things in the moment there that can hit harder than the album version of a song. I personally like Rattle + Hum, but I feel like the album left off some of the most raw and energetic moments from the movie itself. One of my roommates from college ripped all the music off of their and I loved listening to that CD. I agree that they seem to try to polish things to death... though that might be the slight savior complex they have going on... from comments I've seen from the band (especially Bono), they're always really engaged with their sound and playing with it, and aware of their prominent place in the music world.

That's both a good thing and a bad thing, as it has kept them from being one of those "greatest hits, just slightly remixed bands," for the most part. I quibbled big time with someone that argued with me that they always sound the same. You can't listen to the progression from War to Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby and then Pop and not see some massive changes.

Anyway, knowing that Eno and Lilywhite have said that, I really wish the band would take some of that under advisement. Guys, you've worked with those two extensively, and they have worked with some really good bands--they're not perfect, but they know their stuff!

I'm approaching Songs of Innocence like I do Boy or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Yeah, there's some songs that don't click with me as much, but then there are ones that are great. But even then, as I look at the list... I think it's mostly California that throws me off. I don't care for the dabbling back into the usual U2 anthems in some of the songs, but many of them are different enough (and doing something interesting enough) that I enjoyed it. U2 hasn't had a whole lot of guest singers on their albums, so "The Troubles" is fun, and I get a kick out of the 70s/modern dance feel of "The Crystal Ballroom." I'd listen to that over the stuff they were playing at their club in Dublin when I was there (not sure if it's still around, but other than the decor of The Kitchen, the music seemed like every other club I've been in or heard of).