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Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push the Sky Away

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Artist: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Album: Push the Sky Away

Label: Bad Seed Ltd

Review date: Feb. 15, 2013

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - "Jubilee Street"

The greater part of the music that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have released in the past 15 years or so — particularly since 2003’s career-low Nocturama — suggests a debilitating, although hardly fatal, kind of artistic stagnation. Cave and Co. have increasingly resorted to thinly disguised self-plagiarism, but all too often tread dangerously close to its more nefarious double, self-parody. Push the Sky Away decidedly breaks this holding pattern, breaking perhaps more dramatically than any album Cave has ever released with those that preceded it. Self-consciously audacious and experimental, Sky find Cave and his bandmates (although Warren Ellis is undoubtedly his key collaborator here) trying to build a new sound from the bottom up.

Sky’s audacity and novelty, however, doesn’t necessary make it a great album. With its uneven tone and range of vastly differing sonic approaches, it seems to be tailor-made for the designation “transitional” — although before Cave’s next album, we can hardly imagine what it’s transitioning to. Broadly speaking, the album aims to bridge the gap between Cave’s recent soundtracks with Ellis and the more conventional song structures and well-established Cave persona(e) of his Bad Seeds work. In practice, this leads down a variety of paths — in some cases, the songs here seem like mere sonic renovations of rather familiar-sounding material (“Mermaids”), while at more interesting moments, the tried-and-true is discarded in favor of loop-driven atmospheric pieces that can barely be called songs (“We Real Cool”), or austere, repetitive tracks that pare the idea of “song” down to its bare essentials (“Jubilee Street”). While consistently interesting, the album’s diversity also makes for a frustrating listen, and one that never really coheres. More importantly still, the highs and lows are separated by a vast gulf, as the album veers from transcendence one moment to banality the next.

It would be overly simplistic to say that there is a single “more successful” approach among the range tried here. The austere, rhythmic tracks — which seem intended to be, judging from the videos released to promote the album (“We No Who UR,” “Jubilee Street”), the most accessible material here — work well enough. They depend, like most stabs at the minimal, upon carefully placed details and slow burn. It’s a trick that works, but a rather straightforward and limited one. The attempts to break away from song structure, meanwhile, are more of a mixed bag: at times, Cave seem clueless about how to effectively deploy Ellis’s loops, as on the disjointed “Wide Lovely Eyes,” which sounds like someone laid a guitar loop on top of an old-school Cave ballad with vandalistic intentions. “We Real Cool,” already besmirched by a questionable title, feels similarly aimless, as though unsure whether to use its structuring bass loop as a rhythmic foundation or to break decidedly free of it.

Yet, such efforts to disfigure or dissect Cave’s past approaches to songwriting and arrangement also constitute the album’s most beautiful moments. The sweet spot seems to be not a rejection or contempt for song structure so much as a re-thinking of how its components fit together. “Finishing Jubilee Street” feels at the outset like it’s going to be a non-song spoken word piece, with Cave speaking over a sparse groove, but unexpected fragments of melody and female backing vocals effectively combine the repetitious aesthetic of the loop with a more modular one; bits of song seem to float freely and unexpectedly into each other. “Water’s Edge” is an even stronger effort in the same vein, building on the flirtation with samples heard on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!, but employing a similarly modular approach described above, and erecting something altogether indefinable that achieves a perfect alchemy, one that eludes him throughout much of the album.

Lyrics, of course, play a large role in determining Cave’s success here as well. If one accepts that Sky attempts to bring something of Cave and Ellis’s soundtrack aesthetic into the Bad Seeds context, we might say that words should fill in the space that would be filled by image in soundtracks. At their best, Cave’s music and lyrics are synergistic: his vocals work best when they feel like pieces of raw material on equal footing with other sounds, as on the spoken/sung “Finishing Jubilee Street” or “Water’s Edge.” Perhaps what makes other moments on the album feel so off-kilter is a failure to respect this balance. Cave has always been a showy, theatrical lyricist and singer, yet he paradoxically is at his best when he is simply content to be low-key and evocative, rather than giving the listener the impression he makes great efforts to be clever or literary. “Higgs Boson Blues,” which feels like the album’s backsliding moment, provides a case study in what not to do, as Cave spills forth a torrent of semi-nonsensical free association full of winks at contemporary cultural goings-on (the search for the titular particle, Miley Cyrus, and the like). A more self-effacing, even anaesthetized approach works far better, as when Cave describes, with very little mannerism, a dream of a young bride on “Finishing Jubilee Street,” and feels far more congruous with the musical atmosphere that the album aims to construct.

Push the Sky Away’s rewards are interspersed among plenty of frustrating moments, yet even at its worst, it’s a fascinating album. The way in which Cave seems to be trying to break out of his own habits here is unfailingly compelling, even if results of his experiments aren’t particularly successful. This success-in-failure is certainly a sign of Cave’s strength as an artist, and Sky demonstrates that while he may have at times resorted to rehashing the past, he and the Bad Seeds remain as musically vital as ever.

By Michael Cramer

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