I’ve always thought of Nick Cave as someone who would do something stark for stark’s sake, the guy who will cut through the din of a party by shouting something inappropriate for the pleasure of seeing everyone’s discomfort. Push the Sky Away is not a stark album by any stretch of the imagination. As much as it potentially bothers me to say, it’s the easy listening Nick Cave. the later period album that explores a gentler, more ethereal aspect of the group’s personality.
That’s not to say that the album is toothless. Most of the songs are well-constructed and interesting, but it feels like a mostly too-polished record for the name hovering above the title. There wasn’t anything truly experimental, truly thought-provoking about Push the Sky Away. It’s an album of good songs, both in production and follow-through, but for some reason I expected something different from Cave and The Bad Seeds.
It doesn’t end in any significant way than it begins, which is sort of problematic. The whole album seems to inhabit the same wavelength throughout, and it never really seems to break free of that ever. That being said, it is one of the most listenable and uncomplicated albums Nick Cave has ever made.
It is a sparsely arranged record, which only reinforces the ethereal feel of it. There are some nice touches that make it seem orchestral in parts and Eastern in other ways, but for the most part, it strays only very seldomly from its main flourishes. There is something comforting in it, and it is nice to see an entirely different side of the band, so maybe expectations are what are disappointing here. One can bask in the unexpected as he can in the quotidian.
As a listener, I always expect Nick Cave to be able to tell the uncomfortable truths, but this album seems to be mostly devoid of Cave’s direct, unflinching stare into the darkness. Not only that, though it maintains a central thematic orbit, nothing about it screams the sort of prophetic wisdom one is accustomed to from Cave.
It doesn’t have the funky swagger of the tracks on Dig, Lazarus, Dig! or the poetic horror of Murder Ballads, nor does it possess any of the ironic sentimentality of tracks like Into My Arms or Are You The One I’ve Been Waiting For?, but it does possess some elements of No More Shall We Part and The Boatman’s Call. Cave here seems detached from the violence and pain he describes, which, the more I think about it, becomes increasingly interesting. But that does not shine through on the first or second play-through.
The opening song, We No Who U R, is the darkest track, and even though it is simple, structurally, it is by far the most evocative of earlier albums, especially the mordant Murder Ballads. I would say it’s a highlight of the album, but several other songs reach nearly as high. (Water’s Edge (reminiscent of Lovely Creature), Mermaids, and the title track are all really very good songs.
However, it is Jubilee Street that sticks with me well after the whole album has ended. It reminds me of some kind of mid-90s ballad, and the drums and guitar become hypnotic backrops for Cave’s lyrics, which tell the all-too-familiar story of desperation and hypocrisy in a grimy urban setting. The accompanying strings – strings are a major player in this album – are beautiful and (if the word is not too overused in Cave reviews) haunting.
Overall, it is not an album that explores the nature of humanity like previous albums. He is not the angry preacher on this fifteenth record, but the disappointed lounge singer, the man who has resigned himself to a world he could do nothing to change. He is a man telling sad truths rather than rebelling against them, and the result is an alarmingly calm outing. Which, come to think of it, might be the most unsettling aspect of the whole thing.