In Praise of Unfinished Works
After a three-album rock ‘n’ roll rampage – 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! and two albums by the Bad Seeds offshoot Grinderman (one in 2007, one in 2010) – which included an at least partly tongue-in-cheek amping-up of the macho sleaze factor – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are back to being quiet, sort of, on Push the Sky Away. This album will be compared to Cave’s last ‘quiet period’, so to speak, when he tilted towards piano ballads for two albums back in 1997 and 2001, The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. The two albums after that contained their share of gentle piano songs, too, but also songs that pointed towards the rocking to come.
Thinking of Push the Sky Away as going back to anything would be wrong, however, as it doesn’t really resemble any of Cave’s previous albums all that strongly. In some ways, it seems the opposite of those past ballads. Where those songs seemed carefully composed, mannered and “literary”, these new songs feel like loose, seemingly on-the-fly sketches. From the start, the music here seems skeletal. Cave sings over loops of sometimes hard-to-identify instruments. There’s recognizable piano, guitar, bass and violin at times, certainly some percussion (perhaps a drum machine) but often the dominant sound is a constant texture likely made of those instruments played in clipped, non-typical ways, but could just as well contain other mystery sounds or tools. Perhaps half of the songs do have more typical music, albeit played more in circular fashion than normal, but on the other half the base sound resembles ghostly fabric – hazy, soft and strange.
Because of that it’s at first hard to hear this as a “Bad Seeds” album until you remember that those more ballad-led albums were too, that the band has never had one dominant sound or style. The way they play here, though, feels half-formed and elliptical; unfinished. The lyrics and melodies strike that same tone. Cave sings ideas, images, quick scenes more than stories. If often in the past his songs seemed to carry elaborate backstories, histories and mythologies within them – spelled-out or not – here they feel like wisps.
In some ways that makes the album more powerful, or at least powerful in a different way than usual. It’s the strangest album he’s done in a while, after a push towards the concrete. It seems a deliberate act of keeping things fresh.
Push the Sky Away might be prettier overall than his other recent albums, but it has a lot of menace in it. “Water’s Edge” plays somewhat gently with the dance between city girls and country men, with an emphasis on inarticulation and mortality before ending with what seems like a mass rape. “Jubilee Street” may be hiding a lot of behind-close-doors mischief in its street scene.
For all the creepiness, there’s an elegiac feeling about much of it too, like on “Wide Lovely Eyes”, which strikes me as either a break-up song or a farewell to Coney Island. The album seems thoroughly bittersweet, even when Cave starts strutting and swaggering through the songs again. Occassionally he riffs on our modern media-crazed times, like on the remarkable, seven-plus minute “Higgs Boson Blues”, which puts together Robert Johnson and the Devil at the crossroads (“Robert Johnson and the Devil, man / don’t know who’s gonna rip off who “), the Higgs Boson elementary particle, Hannah Montana, Internet hot spots, pop hits and genocide in one rambling road-trip contemplation of our dark future. There’s a smirk turned towards our modern life less overtly in other places, perhaps even in the the text-speak abbreviation of the title “We No Who U R”.
Riffing seems to be his songwriting approach here. In doing so, sometimes he winds up on something weak. Even given his propensity for masculine posturing/provoking, this lyric lands with a thud: “she was a catch / and we were a match / I was the match that would fire up her snatch.” The creation of this all, though, seems purposely loose. The creation itself also is made part of the story. “Finishing Jubilee Street” begins with him finishing writing “Jubilee Street”. Critics might get excited by a meta-moment like that, but it appeals to me less for its cleverness than for the way it speaks to the album’s sense of incompletion, the way the album itself seems to know that it’s not fully there.
Push the Sky Away is a flawed album, then, and an argument for the importance of flaws, an argument against “perfection” in a time when our celebrity culture and celebrity-driven news cycle seem to point to the idea that there is such a thing. It’s a pretty-sounding ugly LP, one that contains its fair share of ghosts, standing in for the sadness and brutality of our time, perhaps even the sadness and brutality of human existence.