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Genuinely Strange

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds-Push The Sky Away-Bad Seeds Ltd-4.5 STARS

By Ahmee Marshall-Christensen, Contributing Writer

Nick Cave, the brooding and self-absorbed heart of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, has long dedicated himself to pushing the limits of the musical macabre. Against all odds, the group has attained an even higher level of eccentricity with their newest album, "Push The Sky Away." Cave’s hallmarks include his low register, at-times-threatening lyrics, and tense instrumentals that form a dark frame for his voice. "Push The Sky Away" develops the band’s classic sound, adding an element of lunacy to the band’s traditionally grim yet controlled lyrics and balancing the usually deep tone of the music with more whimsical tropes. The most remarkable feature of the album, however, is the earnestness that persists in Cave’s unwaveringly brooding vocals, which maintains the album’s integrity even as Cave vacillates between his classically disturbing images and the more insubstantial themes that crop up on "Push The Sky Away."

Since their inception in 1983, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have recorded 15 albums. Each of these works help to construct the gloomy and pensive oeuvre for which "Push The Sky Away" acts as the culmination. Before its recording, the group was scattered. Cave and a few others branched off to work on a side project, Grinderman, and the original bassist, Barry Adamson, left the group. After the disbandment of Grinderman and Adamson’s decision to rejoin, the group reconvened for their tour de force, "Push the Sky Away."

The first track from the album reveals the group’s newfound fascination with the more cosmetic possibilities of production. The song—whose title, "We No Who U R," might be more at home on a Ke$ha album—proves to be shockingly catchy while still setting the sinister tone for the rest of "Push The Sky Away." Instrumentally, the song derives its success from the combination of airy, feminine backup vocals and flute that balance Cave’s throaty growl. The piano-driven chord progression and clean percussion give the song an unexpected sweetness. The beginning lines of the song contribute to this dulcitude, with Cave softly intoning, "We go down with the dew in the morning light." Almost inevitably, the band deserts the positive vibe and relapses into its classic sound. The lyrics abandon lighthearted natural imagery for an unsettling tone with, "And we know who you are / And we know where you live / And we know there’s no need to forgive," establishing the generally deranged mood of "Push The Sky Away." This song begins the album on a strong note, introducing an attractive, accessible pop sensibility while still remaining cohesive with the rest of the body of work.

The other high point of the album is the beginning of "Higgs Boson Blues," where Cave relinquishes any lyrical inhibitions that may have previously stifled him. Instrumentally, the song is not of particular interest—the instrumentation primarily comprises guitar and percussion, the guitar changing chords only every other measure and the drums not doing much more than keeping the time. The decision to err on the side of simplicity here, however, intentionally highlights Nick Cave’s voice and, more specifically, lyrics. The beginning of the song logically approaches the two titular topics: the Higgs Boson and the blues. Cave begins the song with a narrative setup, "I’m driving my car down to Geneva," which is the location of the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs Boson was investigated; he also makes reference to Robert Johnson, an influential blues singer. Within this concrete frame, Cave’s lyrics are free to reach a new state of fevered brilliance, and he sings, "Well here comes Lucifer / With his canon law / And a hundred black babies runnin’ from his genocidal jaw." The first half of "Higgs Boson Blues" is marked by lyrics that feel wildly surrealistic yet strike a chord of earnestness that makes the song feel genuine despite its mania.

In the song’s second half, however, the major flaw of "Push The Sky Away" comes to the fore as the cohesiveness of the lyrics falter over awkward allusions to pop culture which clash with the mood of the band. Among a gallimaufry of inexplicable lines, Cave’s apparent obsession with everybody’s favorite Disney starlet becomes evident in the lines "Hannah Montana does that African savanna" and "Miley Cyrus floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake." It is in lyrical moments such as these that the songs seem to lose the balance between eccentricity and gravity. It is evident that Nick Cave believes in these lyrics, but his conviction only carries him so far.

The atmospheric, experimental "Push The Sky Away" marks the reinventive return of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Even with the new turns that the group takes, though, it still feels like a sincerely crafted album. Of course, because of Cave’s singular mind, some of the elements that arise from his sincerity can be jarringly strange. An overwhelming majority of the album is captivating, and the candor with which it is presented makes "Push The Sky Away" a memorable album in the extensive discography of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.

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