Archive for March, 2013

Music vets push into the future

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on March 25, 2013 by Todd

Push-the-Sky-Away

Standing nearly alone in the world of contemporary rock music, the latest release by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds offers a series of fascinating contrasts in the subtle craft of artistic progress, as the band twists and mutates their defining sound while navigating the abundant ambiguities and back alleys of the twenty-first century.

“Push the Sky Away,” is filled with songs that in other, less creative hands could be called ballads. Here however, the music’s hushed surface sits atop a substratum of dread, as rumbling bass and screeching electronic loops fill the spaces between Cave’s piano with a tension that builds until it becomes nearly palpable, insinuating itself between the notes to emerge as the album’s defining element.

The relative starkness of the music allows Cave, now in his fourth decade as a songwriter, to bring his rich baritone and lyrics to the fore. Both prove equally rewarding, as his superbly nuanced voice weaves itself around words that unpretentiously delve into the contradictions and absurdities of human existence with dry humor and open mouthed horror, as he travels from base lust to exalted love, from smirking menace to moments of surpassing beauty and despair. Here, the listener will find equal reverence for both the sublime and the ridiculous.

The album opens with visions of nature set aflame, Cave intoning a hushed warning for the Earth’s despoilers:

“We know who you are

And we know where you live

And we know there’s no need to forgive”

Flaming trees return in the album’s penultimate moment, “Higgs Boson Blues” is which Cave turns a car ride to Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider into a phantasmagoric road trip whose more memorable scenes include blues master Robert Johnson’s rendezvous with the devil, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Hannah Montana throwing a hissy fit while roaming the African desert.

The song also contains an unnerving couplet that’s both funny and terrifying in its suggestion of the ultimate price of colonialism.

“The Mau Mau ate the pygmy

The pygmy ate the monkey

The monkey has a gift that he’s sending back to you.

Look, here comes the missionary

With his small pox and flu

He’s saving them savages

With his Higgs Boson Blues”

“Jubilee Street,” the albums centerpiece, begins with Cave intoning in the voice of a disgraced john whose life begins to unravel once his former paramour’s “little black book” is made public. While fear and emotional turmoil pervade its early moments, as the song progresses its protagonist discovers a sense of freedom, grace even, in the midst of his humiliation. He no longer cowers in shame, but walks boldly uptown in his Sunday best, his child—his “fetus on a leash” in his own crazed description—there beside him. As the man stands alone, abandoned by his family in a house emptied of furniture, he begins to transform, his old life falling away as he’s carried, vibrating, glowing, into the future.

Transformation and other recurring motifs abound: Mermaids, who are hung from lampposts by their hair in “Wide Lovely Eyes,” return as the titular subjects several songs later, serving as the focal point for a meditation on the nature of faith in the modern world.

“I believe in God

I believe in mermaids too

I believe in 72 virgins on a chain, why not, why not”

The mythical creatures’ home, the ocean, also appears throughout the album, both lyrically and in the music’s aquatic fluidity and grace. While the beach is a scene of tranquility, a meeting place for lovers in the aforementioned “Wide Lovely Eyes,” it is also the world where “local boys” take out their rage on “girls from the capital” with iPod strings flowing from their ears, as the scene plays out in “Water’s Edge.”

Throughout “Push the Sky Away,” the numbing effects of endless information, inspired by Cave’s late night Internet trolling, mingle with the albums lush organic settings to give the work a feel that’s both modern and ancient, as synthesizers merge with flutes and God Particles and galaxies give way to computer assisted amnesia.

“Sirius is 8.6 light years away
Arcturas is 37
The past is the past and it’s here to stay
Wikipedia’s heaven
When you don’t want to remember anymore.”

Those lyrics form the climatic verse of perhaps the album’s finest and most enigmatic song, “We Real Cool.” Whether heard as a pledge of commitment to a loved one, a cynical judgment of human hubris, or a plea for proof of the divine, the remarkable lyrics and tense yet graceful musical setting bring together the best of Cave’s past work with a heightened sense of restraint, resignation and empathy, qualities that come only with age and bitter discernment.

The fact that Cave and his band are still discovering new facets of their artistry 15 albums into their career is inspirational. That they have created what is arguably the most important music of their lives is proof that age may bring, if not exactly wisdom, then at least the courage to whistle past the graveyard to a tune all your own.

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