Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ ‘Push The Sky Away’ At 10

“A man out of place and time, and out of my mind...”

On 17th February 2013 Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds released their fifteenth album ‘Push The Sky Away’, it sparked a radical evolution of the band’s sound that would develop into an ongoing trilogy.

‘Push The Sky Away’ would be Cave’s Brighton album, drawing on the view from high windows onto the seafront of the coastal town trapped between the jaws of sea and sky, it became a missive from the edge of the world. The album’s press release echoed Cave’s lyric of “a man out of place and time, and out of my mind”, looking down from his comfortable family home ruminating upon love, the slow creep of middle age and the changing shape of the world shifting beneath his feet. 

Merging into view like a faded memory, the album cover shows Cave planted to the spot, tall and dark in the corner of his bedroom. He holds open an equally tall Georgian window shutter, flooding the room with sunlight to illuminate the naked body of his wife, Susie Cave. A model and creator of the Vampire’s Wife fashion brand, here she serves as willing muse, bleached brilliant white, like a statue come to life. Skipping across the floor her hands and jet black hair cover her face, feet barely touching the ground as she cuts across her husband’s gaze.

The image’s play of space and light would become the metaphor for the album, expressed in its themes of shadowplay and murmurations of deep feeling beneath the surface. The shutter is transformed into a door to the sun, open or closing, it hints at both escape and a return. The ambiguous setting of the scene manages to reflect the album’s elegiac treatment of love and lust; death and aging. Cave was at pains to point out the picture wasn’t his idea and was more reluctant to use it for the album cover than his wife was. He explained that he walked in on a photoshoot for a French magazine when photographer Dominique Issermann asked him for more light. Isserman captures a spontaneous glimmer of intimacy between husband and wife passing through each other’s lives. In the meta-documentary, 20,000 Days On Earth, filmed during the album’s recording but released the year after in 2014 Cave reflects upon the ways in which Susie appears as a voice drifting in and out of the songs, her words haunting his.

‘Push The Sky Away’ would signal a creative rebirth for Cave where the album’s sonic signature often veers between ambient restraint and cataclysmic shows of force, a style that managed to celebrate the intensity and dynamism of the Bad Seeds as a band unit, while subtly shifting their sound towards broader experimentation. In a recent statement about the album, Cave said: “The record opened up a whole different approach to the way we created our music. It was the beginning of a way of writing – a kind of controlled improvisation. Because of this shift, the record was to some extent divisive – but it was the necessary reinvention that the Bad Seeds desperately needed.” In spite of the album’s change of direction key tracks such ‘Jubilee Street’, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ and ‘Push The Sky Away’ would become sleeper ‘hits’ merged into a popular consciousness as anthems of rejuvenation and resilience. Performed by the Bad Seeds across a number of festivals in the summer of 2013, they remain a staple of the band’s live sets ten years later, bringing them legions of new fans. 

Produced by Nick Launay, a veteran of early The Birthday Party records and several of Cave’s most successful albums, such as ‘Abattoir Blues/Lyre Of Orpheus’ the album was recorded at La Fabrique, a recording studio based in a 19th Century mansion in the South of France and Brighton. Video clips shot during the stay in France suggest a suitably louche, free-flowing recording process, open-hearted, relaxed; not the doom and gloom of the band’s most liberated period of excess and tension fuelled recording session, exacerbated by Cave’s heroin addiction. 

Cave would heap praise upon the band as well as note the transitional state of the recording process: “I enter the studio with a handful of ideas, unformed and pupal; it’s the Bad Seeds that transform them into things of wonder.” There were major changes in the classic Bad Seeds line-up that yielded more room for the Bad Seeds to maneuver into ambient textures, without the demands of layered guitars, standardized ‘rock’ chord progressions, as well as allowing for pregnant pauses and elements of electronic interference to dirty up the sound as much as build-up elevated harmonies.   

Traditionalist Bad Seeds fans would lament the shift from ‘old Nick Cave’ and the double losses of founder member Mick Harvey who quit in 2009 and the blinkered anti-rock and roll guitarist, Blixa Bargeld – Cave’s own version of Robert Fripp – who had previously quit the band in 2003. The record would also herald the arrival of new blood, George Vjestica adding guitar and former Magazine and Bad Seeds founder member Barry Adamson returning for some bass tracks and touring duties, alongside stalwarts of (two) drummers  Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler, the ever notable Martyn Casey on bass and provide the swansong for the late Conway Savage on piano.

Cave was initially disparaging about Harvey’s departure, a founding member of the band, characterizing as someone who used to lay down guitars everywhere, miring the band in a more standard rock format. While Cave’s singer-songwriter piano would often provide the backbone of many Bad Seeds tracks,  biographer Mark Mordue noted that Harvey was often the glue that held the Bad Seeds together throughout the worst of times. More than a simple guitarist bearing his Lou Reed rhythms on his sleeve, he was a multi-instrumentalist who finished drum tracks, added organ and piano parts, even building up the industrial sounding loops that drive forward what is arguably the band’s biggest song ‘The Mercy Seat’.

In his stead Warren Ellis stepped to the fore as bandleader bringing a new ear and sonic approach to what the Bad Seeds could become. A session musician who first played violin on 1994’s ‘Let Love In’, he became an integral member of the Bad Seeds, and a quiet audience to increasing friction between the clashing big personalities of Cave, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, who gradually found less space for themselves on each record, putting strain on decades-long relationships. Ellis applied a strongly improvisational, free-flowing method to piece songs together and layer instrumentation. Echoing something of the radical authenticity of Jack Kerouac’s mantra ‘first thought best thought’ he preferred the urgent spontaneity of first-time takes over studied renditions. 

Both Cave and Ellis claimed influence from the abrasive experimentalist beat-making that featured on Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ (2010), an album by turns brash, tender, and outspokenly confrontational (I love it still) it offered a darker mirror to the sonics of ‘Push The Sky Away’. The album would also bear the hallmarks of Ellis’ love for Alice Coltrane’s powerful eastern-tinged use of drones and his shared passion with Cave for the poised melancholy of Nina Simone’s piano style. building the songs up by layered sounds, embracing the quiet power of pauses punctuated by loops of delayed guitar noise and samples absorbed, as if by osmosis, from the band then fed back into the record,, weaving in and around the rest of the band. Cave turned his back on straight murder ballads and neo-blues meets post-punk of his early records:  “On this album it’s not always apparent what instruments the band is playing: they may be traditional musical instruments but other sounds are clearly generated by objects unrelated to musical instruments.” This forms a cohesive anti-style, gauzed in an electronic haze of ticks, synths and other programming tricks, like a mist rolling off the sea threatening to swallow the songs whole. Though the Bad Seeds dynamics still manage to push through it would spark a creative tension that would continue on the next two albums in the loose trilogy, continued by ‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Ghosteen’.

Cave maintains the apocalyptic edge that served him in so many of his early songs such as ‘I Had A Dream, Joe’, ‘Straight To You’ and ‘Tupelo’, there is the heavy air of paranoia of a girl with no name watched by secret police, black notebooks of oblique secrets we can only imagine in Cave’s spidery scrawl. Album opener ‘We Know Who U R’ Cave evades brute text-speak for florid scenes of devastation set among shards of chiming organ and synth notes. Seeing trees rise into smoke like burning hands the songs reaches forwards to the flame trees laid down to die the rising up again through ‘Higgs Boson Blues’.

Cave’s lyrics would seem equally possessed of a heightened sense of clarity and perspective, as if looking down on his own life as a casual observer, the album arrives as his unique deus machina of introspection. Landing somewhere between the hale and hearty midlife crisis of the Grinderman albums post-modern garage rock, Jim Morrison swagger and porn-star mustache, and the moodier, inward-looking autobiography of ‘The Boatman’s Call’ album released in 1997. 

On ‘We Real Cool’ Cave heralds the bulletproof thrill of being a cocky young youth, set against the new determinism of Wikipedia as heaven. Such wandering thoughts were a sign of his year writing trawling the internet, drifting through google and Wikipedia entries, “whether they’re true or not” and these gathering scraps in his notebook from an emergent post-truth world. Embracing the fresh hell of the online universe, Cave suggested “these songs convey how on the internet profoundly significant events, momentary fads and mystically-tinged absurdities sit side-by-side and question how we might recognise and assign weight to what’s genuinely important.”

However Cave’s trademark laughter-in-the-dark sense of humor, embracing equal parts self-mockery and twisted satire would remain. Songs such as ‘Jubilee Street’ continue to willingly veer between the ridiculous to the sublime. It hits the sweet spot of angst and bittersweet folly in the surrealist imagery of a man in tie and tails wandering about the town (a real life street in Brighton) Sisyphus-like dragging around his “ten ton catastrophe” set against the wild and weightless body horror of a “fetus on a leash”, urban ghost stories cut through the pages of Viz magazine. Cave would take a further metafictional turn with ‘Writing Jubilee Street’ lost in lust and adrift to love, he addresses broken narrative and transmutation, themes he would return to more directly on ‘Skeleton Tree’s haunting abstractions ‘Girl In Amber’ and ‘Rings Of Saturn’.

Elsewhere, the chilly restlessness of ‘Water’s Edge’ is carried by a powerful bass rumble, what Cave termed as its “dark sonic undertow”. No longer young he watches, with mixture of amusement and envy, as the new generations work out their 21st century angst through their bodies, boys stalking girls across the beach. This track meets with the failed romanticism of ‘Mermaids’, Cave paints a divided portrait of frustrated lust and sexual resignation and carrying echoes of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land (written in further up the coast in Margate, Kent) with the sea maidens at once waving goodbye and hello, as he is neither waving or drawing (see Stevie Smith) knowing they will no longer sing for him. In the permanent vista of the sea Cave finds the endless push and pull of the tides roiling infinity into erosion, and back, playing with the limits of his certainty and self-doubt. 

In revolt at the seeming inevitability of 21st century chaos, Cave creates his own rapture with a surreal clash of images, dead icons, and heavenly portents that seemed to go nowhere. Despite his abiding faith, even back in 2013 Cave would still be hung up on the seeming absence of God. Like ‘Tupelo’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ before him, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ returns him to the relentless pursuit of the powerful and authentic reach of music as fantastic revelation. Recorded in one live take, Cave improvising his sprawling lyrics on the mic, Warren Ellis would continue a repeated guitar groove, sliding up and down the fretboard of his mini tenor-guitar creating an endless chord that dominates the song.

The grandiosity of the track affects the intense metaphorical weight of the reactor designed to reach back towards a scientific reenactment of the creation of the universe, seeking out the God particle, all set against the burning world of 20th century atrocity (as Cave would later draw more directly from W. G. Sebald’s book Rings Of Saturn on ‘Skeleton Tree’). Cave does the same, trawling through his musical roots, in the blues of Robert Johnson, struck at the crossroads between sainthood as the original king of the delta blues singer and signing a deal with the Devil, a similar pact that Cave might once have made, caught between the self-destruction addiction and sacrificing body and mind that through much of the 1980s saw him necessarily suffer for his art. A much wiser Nick Cave informs the spirit of ‘Push The Sky Away’, the lurching chaos and restraint of ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ trawls pop-culture iconography of Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana meeting with a car-crash of post-millennial comedown in the internet age overloaded with urgent and useless information. Cave casts a wandering line of thought and self-doubt that becomes his latest anthem to the next apocalypse, the listener is abandoned to a landscape not knowing if they are alive or dead.

‘Higgs Boson’ stands as a testament to the album’s major themes about the struggles of memory ad forgetting, overcoming painful knowledge as much as a warning against sinking into the deep melancholy of looking too long into the past and neatly segues into the closing title track of the album. ‘Push The Sky Away’ emerges like a fully-formed dream. Its shining chords chiming with the chorus vocals, it become a haunting mantra that manages to conjure up the image of Venus at once the dark nad the light of the morning and the evening star, seen just before the dawn and after sunset as the world edges into night.

‘Push The Sky’ away remains an album of great elegiac force, celebrating life in spite of itself, working at the  promethean edge of hubris, to deny the jurisdiction of the old gods of fate and chance. Where Cave might have become another aging rocker, clinging to his musical past like a sinking ship ‘Push The Sky Away’ reinvigorated both Cave and the Bad Seeds’ image and set an evolutionary pattern for the band’s future. The album remains Cave’s rejuvenating post-rock record that would see the Bad Seeds reborn for a new era and the beginning of a trilogy of records that would be forced to pivot from triumph towards a reckoning tragedy. 

The death of Cave’s son Arthur in 2015 during the final recording sessions for the ‘Skeleton Tree’ album would create a rupture in Cave’s private life, causing what he termed an annihilating sense of grief that threatened to destroy him. He emerged not wholly recovered, but in his own words quite changed, a new person almost. In late 2019 the release of ‘Ghosteen’ would stand as Cave’s final expression of the shared experiences of grief and a confrontation with life after loss. 

While earlier in the year the wide world turned darker with the global Covid-19 pandemic which for a time paralyzed people with anxiety and fear and the creeping alienation of lockdown. With the ongoing project of Red Hand Files and Cave’s direct communication with fans and others who experienced life-changing moments of loss, but also giving them the chance to “ask me anything” and to interrogate his private life and songwriting. Cave would find that his new sharing openness had become an invigorating force which would culminate in the Faith, Hope and Carnage book released towards the end of 2022, it established an ongoing dialogue with Cave’s good friend the journalist Sean O’Hagan as interlocutor maintained throughout the pandemics plague years. 

Looking back ten years later, both the album and its core title track now seem to reflect a journey of love and loss come full circle. ‘Push The Sky Away’ endures as a powerful invocation of a person summoning up their inner resilience to pushing back against what Cave referred to as “horizons and limitations, spiritual and physical barriers”. The mantra like repetition of the chorus lyric becomes a living vision of hope in spite of cruelty and chaos of the world around us. Cave playfully edges us towards the throwaway nature of music but also its vital importance, with art as the saving grace of life: “I know it’s just rock and roll / But it gets you right down to your soul…”

Words: Adam Steiner

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