Nick Cave has had a busy few years. Not content with the raucous fire and brimstone of the two Grinderman albums or 2008’s equally sulphurous ‘Dig Lazarus Dig’ he’s found time to write two movies, a further novel and half a dozen film soundtracks with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis. With the announcement of summer shows and the release of French filmmakers Gaspar Noe’s stunning ‘We No Who U R’ video anticipation runs high for ‘Push the Sky Away’. The question is: With Cave’s attention eaten up by so many different projects, does it deliver?
The answer is sort-of. Though perhaps it’s less ambitious than 2004’s Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus, ‘Push the Sky Away’ is still a solid record. In fact if comparisons have to be made than the latter disk of that excellent double album is a good jumping off point. Cave’s booming speak-singing is still appealingly intense but this time the Bad Seeds give the music more space, with gentle brushing grooves that sound like they could well have been recorded live.
His films have tended to evoke the hard-grind, dog-eat-dog worlds of early 20th century America yet ‘Push the Sky Away’ plays with the conventions we expect of Cave, juxtaposing text speak titles like ‘We No Who U R’ and ‘We Real Cool’ with his trademark cold lyricism. It’s not quite a Radiohead-like statement of technological alienation but he succeeds in a fusion of high and low culture that manages to put a 21st century spin on his demonic preacher man persona. ‘We Real Cool’ in particular takes the listener on a menacing tour of the solar system, with diversions into the density of knowledge of Wikipedia.
‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ improbably uses a vocal melody similar to Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’ but the real standout moments come when the Bad Seeds really open out and deploy a few tricks that Cave may well have picked up from his time producing soundtracks for the likes of The Road. ‘Jubilee Street’ is six and half minutes of kitchen-sink drama, with the groups minimal arrangements and looping bluesy guitar lending scope to Cave’s tale of ‘a foetus on a leash… a ten ton catastrophe on a 60 pound chain’
The best however is ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ a fearsome romp that adds Hannah Montana to the list of unfortunate female victims of Cave’s murderous tongue. That she sits comfortably alongside Robert Johnson and of course, Lucifer himself is a tribute to Cave’s fractured take on modern life. Drawing out every syllable, when he sings ‘If I die tonight, bury me in my favourite yellow patent leather shoes’ you can easily imagine Jack White delivering something similar. Finally cut loose Jim Sclavunos’ cavernous drums back up what is probably the grooviest cut on the record with a soaring coda.
Like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, Cave has reached a point in his career at which any release he deigns to offer up to his rapturous public is received with a barrage of uncritical acclaim pretty much reserved for Olympic heroes and people who save kittens from trees. Viewed from a more critical perspective there are a few tracks here where the sense of menace seems more contrived or the contemporary references already feel somewhat tired. ‘Push the Sky Away’ is not flawless then but it manages to do at least a couple of the things Cave does so well, without looking like a stopgap. He’s probably preaching to the converted now but Nick Cave’s fervour remains unquenched.