Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released their fifteenth album on Tuesday, Push The Sky Away. The Bad Seeds' last two albums, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008) and Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004), are two of my all-time favorites, a pair of furious, sprawling terrains on which Cave constructs twisted fables. The two quick-and-dirty Grinderman albums that Cave recorded with a team of Seeds in 2007 and 2010 are damn good too. The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds did some great work in the 70's, 80's and 90's, but, for me, Cave reached his peak in the past ten years.

I was dying to see what Cave did with the first Bad Seeds album of our youngish decade, and the first without longtime Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey, who had played with Cave since the mid-70's. Not rating the songs individually this time, draw your own conclusions.

1. "We No Who U R"
I called this one a ghostly piano joint when I first heard it, which that still sounds about right. A simple, forlorn piano part echoes out, buttressed by Martyn Casey's bass. Casey's low-end is a crucial, understated part of much of what's to come, but easy to miss. The same is true of the fine percussion of Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler. "We No Who U R" is more restrained than nearly anything on the last four albums--the Bad Seeds have responded to the departure of longtime guitarist Mick Harvey by pushing in a sparser, slower direction. It's easy to compare this to other slower, piano-y Cave records. But Push The Sky Away has its own vibe, deserves to be heard on its own terms, not The Boatman's Call's.

2. "Wide Lovely Eyes"
Begins with tense textures that scream Warren Ellis--and indeed Ellis is now the head Seed, with a writing credit on every song here. Cave's vocal strains in a more sentimental direction, especially during the chorus, but Ellis' loop keeps things grimly atmospheric. Like "No Who U R," the song is open, unadorned--perhaps of necessity, given Harvey's departure. There's room at the center of "Wide Lovely Eyes" for howling guitar, but the song is just fine without it.

3. Water's Edge
Gnarled bass frowns as Cave demands, "all the young girls where do you hide," sounding like the Big Bad Wolf. "You grow old and you grow cold," as he says. Violin, drifting in and out, colors the song an ashy brown. It sounds quite a bit like an old-fashioned Dirty Three western, set under a wide Australian sky. Cave preens and sneers no less angrily than he did on the past few albums, where he relentlessly lashed out at everything in his line of sight. But here the Bad Seeds are reined in, building tension that finds no release.

4. "Jubilee Street"
Cave in his element, among the whores and johns on red-lit Jubilee. The guitar is more prominent here, threading itself through the track, later joined by strings and some shimmering dissonance. Gathering its momentum slowly, surely, the narrative and music work towards an explosion at 4:45 ("I'm flying!/Look at me now!"). For an explosion, it's understated--everything on Push is--but potent. It's as if Cave and Ellis looked back at Grinderman 2's hell-raising "When My Baby Comes" and eerie, pretty "What I Know," and decided that they deserved to be the same song.

5. "Mermaids"
"Mermaids" is shaded by a sense of loss, crystallized in the eddying guitar. Loss is familiar territory for Cave, one he plies well. You know how old people sometimes talk about how they have trouble remembering things that happened earlier that day, but can recall events from years ago with total precision?--this is that: "they wave at me, they wave and slip/back into the sea." Some lovely backing vocals on the chorus here, recalling Lyre of Orpheus' "O Children".

6. "We Real Cool"
Agitated bass, not far from the rumblings of "Night Of The Lotus Eaters," undergirds "We Real Cool," with occasional accompaniment. As with so much Bad Seeds material, you find yourself trapped inside some dark, elemental fable. This one's a volley of recriminations towards some sort of protege or ex-lover or daughter, hopefully not all three, but the key comes with the line "I hope you're listening/are you?" This is the first Cave song to mention Wikipedia--a line omitted from the lyric sheet. Looking up the distance between the earth and distant stars: not real cool?

7. "Finishing Jubilee Street"
An odd drum pattern powers this fever dream, which opens with Cave putting the finishing touches on "Jubilee Street." I'm reminded of Goya's famous sketch of himself asleep at his desk, tormented by horrible creatures. Always restrained, the song gets weird as Cave wakes up from his sleep and begins his frantic search for an imaginary bride. The respite comes as a chorus and lovely Rhodes send the singer back to his dream.

8. "Higgs Boson Blues"
The Epic here, with immediate echoes of Neil's darkest On The Beach dirges. If "More News From Nowhere" was Cave's nakedest Dylan rip, then this is his crassest attempt to crib Young. He's driving to Geneva, wrestling with the devil, tired as hell, still dealing with shit that happened at the Lorraine Motel nearly 50 years ago. And Hannah Montana, as well, is something that he mentions. His drawls here are a thing of wonder, sounding a bit like a renegade, middle-aged Jagger we've never really got to hear. The Bad Seeds are in the back seat, quietly intense the whole time, but ratcheting up the volume and backing vocals as Cave gets deeper and deeper into his spiritual groove, finally letting the song pass in a whisper. Some simple, beautiful guitar work here.

9. "Push The Sky Away"
The title made me think of Sky Saxon, but the moody, shapeless synths are a million miles away from The Seeds. The lyrics suggest a man resolved to fight another day, month, year, but the oppressive sigh of the keyboards and fact that he's trying to push away the sky, they don't bode so well. I'd suggest "Live Inside The Gloom" as an alternate title here. This is a song, and album, about men with clouded heads trying to find their bearings. Lost, maybe for the last time. It is well worth hearing.

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