And clenching your fist for the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself, you said, ‘well, never mind
We are ugly but we have the music’”
— Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel, 1974
“Don't drag your orchestra into this thing
Just rattle your sticks, rattle your sticks”
— Nick Cave & Rowland S Howard, Zoo Music Girl, 1981
“Thank you, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.”
— Nick Cave, Push The Sky Away (with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), 2021
Songs Of Love And Hate is the album where the songwriter becomes persona. Not that Leonard Cohen is playing a character, or that the album is artifice*, but rather that there’s a reason that when The Bad Seeds essentially reworked Cohen's “Dress Rehearsal Rag”—changing the suicide into homicide, and the pleading “it’s come to this” pre-chorus, into a stuttering soccer chant of "From. Her. TO. Eternityyyyy"—the song’s mood could only go up. Rather than simply overwrought, Songs Of Love And Hate is when Cohen's previous solemn renderings, of typical ‘60s counterculture hijinks (flakes looking out windows, god and war, hippies passing chlamydia around by candlelight and generally hurting each others feelings), crossed over into the high melodrama that is the bag of all main characters who hangs out late with other main characters. Cohen’s own early assessment of the album, as “gimmicky,” is bullshit. Life is dramatic. Lilies are beautiful, but so is gilding. Regardless what some critics might claim, “Cover up your face with soap, there/Now, you're Santa Claus/And you've got a gift for anyone/Who will give you his applause” is not “weird imagery” to anyone who’s had the good taste to look in the bathroom mirror while shaving and hate what they saw. We should all be so lucky to stare into that 4AM mirror, buoyed by the knowledge that the existential horror lurking behind the shower curtain is sharing tub space with Charlie Daniels.
It’s no diminishment of Leonard Cohen’s pain to mark the record as where Cohen officially staked the borders of the territory he’s arguably best known for; as the stately and perverse monolith of sensualist worry; the bridge, between the “Man in Black” and “I Wear Black On The Outside Because Black Is How I Feel On The Inside,” over which gothic rock could ride into town. On Songs Of Love And Hate, Leonard Cohen became Leonard Cohen. Who he was before, but more so. And who he’d remain, till his last hallelujah; calling the last album he lived to see “You Want it Darker,” and then dying, in case the punchline didn’t land the first time.
February 18th marked the 10 year anniversary of Push The Sky Away, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' fifteenth studio album. Ten years on, it’s easy to see Push The Sky Away as a “transitional album” in the Bad Seeds catalog. If the term is typically used as faint praise, here it’s a neutral assessment. I’m a firm believer that Push The Sky Away is one of the two or three best albums in the Bad Seeds catalog. I don’t think that’s necessarily a controversial opinion. But, regardless if you’re an undiscerning fan of everything Cave, a purist who prefers their Bad Seeds to be hopped up on heroin and pile driving through fifteen minute long songs about saloonicide, or one of those critics who only conceded Cave’s genius once the man had his heart broken to such a degree that it canceled out the previous critical hurdle of him being too well dressed to be taken seriously, all should agree that the Bad Seeds that existed before Push The Sky Away became something else entirely in the album’s creation.
Push The Sky Away is the place where all the noir vibeology that had lurked on the periphery of the band’s work (or was indulged in Barry Adamson’s Moss Side Story, Jim Sclavunos’ Vanity Set, and whenever a Bad Seed was summering as a member of Crime & The City Solution) was finally pushed to the fore. But now that noir, which in the ‘80s and ‘90s would be rendered as jagged guitar vamping and spaghetti western disquietude, is played even more subtly, as electronic chamber music; the bass pulling low and warm, the guitars banished almost entirely, the strings keening; from funeral upwards, into low altitude flight. As looping chimes and whistles give every song a subdued glitter that, as glitter historically does, fades and reoccurs. The album is the point where Warren Ellis’ predisposition towards soundscapes becomes a dominating force within the Bad Seeds. While Cave and Ellis are the sole songwriting credits on the majority of the songs, Push The Sky Away is also where all the atmospherics and soundtrack work, that most of the individual band members had long dabbled in (whether we’re talking about Conway Savage’s moody solo work, or Thomas Wydler’s On the Mat and Off), was fully pulled into the Bad Seeds’ sound. As integration, to a degree; there’s no confusing the songs as being anything other than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But more so as transformation.
The Bad Seeds had never sounded modern because I don't think modernity—for its own sake, or in the context of fashion—was ever something that particularly interested them. Cave might have occasionally sung about waking up with a Frappuccino in his hand, but the band's sound stayed grounded outside of linear time and prosaics; the house band of one of those strip clubs that only ever existed in grindhouse movies and Concrete Blonde videos; a tasteful stripclub, where all the musicians are gallant, and also hitmen. On Push The Sky Away, the Bad Seeds don't leave the strip club with a heart of gold entirely. Nick Launay is still the house manager. There's still a sour perfume sweat hanging in the air, and still an air of romantic danger. But they do open the windows. They shake the suits out a bit, get some sunlight. They decide that, with Mick Harvey off on his Serge Gainsbourg kick, there's enough in the band kitty for everyone to get a Frappuccino.
There is a precedent, out of market pressures or midlife fear of irrelevance, for long running artists trying to update their sound, and ending up blundering headfirst into bad techno. Push The Sky Away, however, manages the rare feat of sounding like artists of a certain age following a natural curiosity, a collective one that's been individually explored enough for the band to know their way around a Moog. It probably helped that the band could have made a brawny and redundant Rick Rubin-esque “comeback” album in their sleep. They’d already elided that fate on Dig! Lazarus! Dig!. That being the 2008 album where the Bad Seeds had shot through the Stones-y rock n’ rolla they’d been in danger of slipping into on previous albums, and come out the other side with an album of tuff, winking and hooky garage power-punk; a swaggering confirmation, paired with the Grinderman debut, that all the coastal city kids were empirically correct to call Jim Sclavunos "daddy," describe their hysterical blues rock bands and Jesus Lizard tribute acts as "kind of like the Birthday Party," and to wear their hair like "Release The Bats" era Nick Cave.
Having made that platonically ideal groove rock album, and having sweated out the rest of that New Rock Revolution/indie sleaze impulse with Grinderman’s second album (not to mention the propulsive chug-a-lug of returning bassist Barry Adamson’s I Will Set You Free), it makes sense that the Bad Seeds were now open to finding a sideways reentry into their own archetypal steez.
The 2014 documentary 20,000 Days on Earth concerns the making of Push The Sky Away. The movie is “about” the making of the album in a loose sense. There’s a lot of likable shots of Cave and Ellis being comfortable around each other, and there’s some footage “about” the process of writing and recording music, in that they illustrate the musicians recording a take and looking dissatisfied. There’s a particularly winning scene where Nick Cave makes Ellis be the (still very nice) bad cop regarding a choir of little French kids who keep fucking up the coda to the album’s title track.
There are a number of scenes in the movie where Nick Cave is questioned by Darian Leader. Leader is an English psychoanalyst and author (one of his books is called The New Black. Mourning, Melancholia and Depression). Leader sits across from Cave, looking better put together than any therapist I’ve ever seen. Cave is wearing the darker, shiner of the two suits, so the viewer knows he’s the one in a rock band. Leader asks about Cave’s youth and about the singer’s relationship with his father. The result is sometimes insightful. Cave discussing his dad reading the first chapter of Lolita aloud to him is affecting, and less funny than what it might imply.
(I want to be amusing and point out that, when I was a kid, my dad showed me John Waters’ Female Trouble. But Cave’s father wasn’t giving his son an introduction to transgressive fiction, he was showing his boy what language can do. My impulse to compare that to my seeing Divine knocking over the family Christmas tree, because she didn’t get the cha-cha shoes she’d asked for, is an evasion. Around that same time, my father read the first page of 100 Years of Solitude to me. Like Nick Cave, I don’t have anything cute to say about that particular gift from father to son.)
When Leader’s interrogation is less insightful, or differently insightful, it’s when the camera holds on Cave’s face after the singer has just said something that might imply some larger sorrow. The artifice is intrusive, inherently. The viewer is not a fly on the wall to Nick Cave’s therapy session, and the credulity implied is a bit insulting. But not unenjoyable. It’s like the final scenes of Katy Perry: Part of Me, when the camera closes in on that singer’s anguish at the ending of her relationship with Russel Brand. The viewer can believe what they want. For myself, I don’t entirely trust any therapist who shares a tailor with any member of the Bad Seeds.
While there’s some discussion of the act of creation, and a bit on process (in particular, Cave and Blixa discussing the importance of an honest editor), at no point in the film do any of the musicians discuss material inspiration. They discuss “inspiration,” the mysterious energy that comes and goes—to and from the astral plane—as it pleases. They don’t ever say what records they were listening to, at home and in the studio, that might have pushed the Bad Seeds away from traditional song structure. Warren Ellis and Nick Cave wax rapturously about Nina Simone, though less as an artist than as an elemental force. But if soundtracks, Radiohead, or even Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “God Is Alive Magic is Afoot,”--the song off of 1969’s Illuminations which first combined Leonard Cohen’s theological slashing and burnings with electronic ambient experimentation–was on Ellis or Cave’s mind when writing something like “Higgs Boson Blues,” it doesn’t come up in 20,000 Days on Earth. That’s ok. If the film’s directors had set out to make a blueprint, Cave wouldn’t have agreed to it. And it’s not as if Cave has ever been anything less than generous about sharing the arts and spirits that formed him.
While the set narrative says different, it is Push the Sky Away (and not Skeleton Tree) which marks the beginning of Nick Cave’s transition from Cohen-esque balladeer to free associative ruminator, from the tortured-by-divinity pussy wrecker he’d previously embodied (on every album from 1981’s Prayers On Fire up to 2010’s Grinderman album) into the role he currently plays; as heterodox piano man, Rilke-ian Dear Abby and, occasionally, as Christ’s own open-shirt missionary to the boho agnostics. A Sainted Nick Cave, backed by the sounds of the mystery. Still singing about fat boys’ assholes and fired up snatches, still out on the endless road, groovin’ with his bad boys, but now with a direct line to the ineffable.
There’s a nice bit in the movie describing the first time Cave saw his wife, Susie Bick (now Cave), about how she was the culmination of a lifetime of sexual desire. He lists every single crush he’s ever had, ranging from poolside teenagers when he was a kid to a litany of high and low art cinema vixens. It’s an impressive litany. Even if one might argue that his being into hot brunettes isn’t quite so outré that his boner deserves to be hung in the Louvre, the cataloging of hotness—drawn as it is from his internal psyche and pop culture—is illustrative to where the songwriter’s head is at.
If the poetry of John Berryman and Leonard Cohen’s lyrics had previously been a couple of the major guiding lights in Cave’s songwriting, it’s clear that, by the time Push The Sky Away was written, the poetry of another man had become just as strong an influence. This is no revelation. The Red Hand Files has a number of mentions of the poet, with one 2019 posting going so far as copping to some discarded lyrics being “perhaps a bit too heavy on the old Frederick Seidel.” Cave’s affection for Seidel—a caustic, knowingly aristocratic writer who is a potent enough stylist to rate both a deep love and deep antipathy from upwards of hundreds of people, in a time when giving a shit about poetry isn’t exactly a popular pastime—is obvious. “I was the match/That would fire up her snatch” (From “Mermaids”) could be a line from Seidel’s Ooga-Booga. The verses of Hot Night, Lightning (from Seidel’s 1998 collection, Going Fast) are all too easy to imagine being half-crooned by Nick Cave.
I can’t find an online version of Hot Night, Lightning. And I don’t want to crowd this essay by quoting at the length needed to make my point. But Seidel reading Death of Shah illustrates well enough the leaping imagery, the mix of pointed asides, historical atrocity mongering, and crassly phrased self-interrogation, which understandably appealed to Nick Cave's already like minded sensibilities. Separately, all those aspects were a part of Cave’s toolkit. But Seidel’s specific brand of playful provocation is evident–in both wordplay and worldview–on Push the Sky Away, and on every Cave album that came after.
Like I said, Seidel doesn’t hold the patent on impressionistic dread. It’s not like Cave has ever been unaware of T.S. Elliot or Pound, or that the man hasn’t been connecting spiritually infirm dots, making rats cohabitate with cherubs and whatnot, since his earliest Birthday Party adverbial transgressions. Or that the more contemporary (and stated) influences of Cohen and Scott Walker have ever been far off the radar. Walker’s influence is a bit more difficult to apply. In the cosmology of booming voices and snappy dressers, of writing sad and sexy songs about fucking in midst of historical and ecclesiastic carnage, Walker sits cozily in the trinity with Cohen and Cave. And god knows, when he went hellaciously off the rails, he took his studio with him. But Walker's vaunted later works are indebted to Cave’s pals in Einstürzende Neubauten to a degree that it feels a bit too pat to assume that he was on any of the Bad Seeds’ minds during the writing of Push The Sky Away (even if, sonically, connections could be made). Conversely, as far into Cohen and Cave's respective careers as 1992’ The Future and Henry’s Dream both men were using dead babies (along with the usual suspects of gaping eyes, anal sex, and Jesus Christ) as handy signifiers of an inevitable, encroaching and negative, vibe.
Prior to Push the Sky Away, Cave was writing lyrics that consistently held hands with Walker and Cohen. But I maintain that, after Dig! Lazarus! Dig!, Frederick Seidel becomes—in both rhyme schemes and in chatty/edgy pointillism about Africans and the apocalypse—the first among inspirational equals. If anything Dig! Lazarus! Dig! can be seen as an ending of a particular Nick Cave lyrical style; that of the rock and roll preacher/storyteller, where the protagonist is sometime (ostensibly) Nick Cave, but just as often not. And Push the Sky Away is the introduction of a more elliptical character, where the narrator, reliable or otherwise, is Nick Cave. The Bad Seeds remain the Bad Seeds but, in their newfound love of open spaces, they too embrace the elliptical.
If we wanted to shoehorn a narrative into a body of work that resists it, we can argue that Dig! Lazarus! Dig! was the last Bad Seeds album of the 20th Century, and Push the Sky Away was the artists’ first foray into the 21st. Not as a clean break. The threads were always there; through the aforementioned soundtrack work, forays into noir atmospherics, Ellis’ Dirty Three, all the Berlin bands that ever held space for a Bad Seed, and even in Barry Adamson’s first band, Magazine. “Clean” is not a word I’d associate with the Bad Seeds. And why apply a break to a sound that was never fixed. But, whether it was a culmination translated as a shift, or just Kid A eventually making its way onto Nick Cave’s iPod, Push the Sky Away is the Bad Seeds becoming new.
(If further evidence is needed, besides the individual qualities of the works themselves, look only to Nick Cave's bookshelf, as depicted in 20,000 Days on Earth, where there are volumes of Poems For The Millennium, the University of California’s multi-volume collection of modern & postmodern poetry, on display. Pretty sure the oblique poetry of Charles Olsen didn’t enter into the writing of “The Curse of Millhaven.” Again, I’m focussing—maybe too much—on the lyrics. But, with no disrespect intended towards any instrumentalists involved, one doesn't call the band "Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds" if words, and what they signify, don't matter.)
If poetry is a dealbreaker for the reader, well then, in terms of contextualizing a change in both lyrics and music, an imperfect (but hopefully in the spirit of lowbrow/highbrow mishmash that Cave and Seidel get off on) analogy might be this: Dig! Lazarus! Dig!’s “We Call Upon the Author” is a “previously on…” summation of all the prior episodes of the Bad Seeds tv show. “Higgs Boson Blues” is when the Bad Seeds television program brings on the showrunner from The Leftovers. (For this analogy, that show’s dire, world spanning theology is the best fit. If you haven’t seen it, feel free to substitute The Wire or any other high quality, often profound and occasionally bewildering, ensemble production.)
There’s a scene in 20,000 Days on Earth that is devastating, in retrospect. It’s when Darian Leader asks Nick Cave about his greatest fear. Cave expounds at length about the worst thing that he could, at the time of the documentary's filming, imagine. The loss of memory. Watching the scene, listening to Push the Sky Away, it’s impossible to separate this already enormous change from what would come later.
In the ten years since Push the Sky Away was released, two of Nick Cave’s sons have died. It still feels grotesque to discuss the man’s art in such a terrible context. But Cave has not shied away from the topic. Perhaps because of this, neither has anyone else. Skeleton Tree, the follow up to Push the Sky Away, was released in 2016, a year after Arthur Cave died. But the songs were written before. Some lyrics have been called “prophetic,” a notion which is infuriating. Or rather, the notion is infuriating up to the point where it might be something that Cave takes comfort in, or perpetuates, at which point it becomes none of my business. I can’t comprehend either the pain he and his wife have endured, or the impulses that have driven Cave since his first son died. Nor can I comprehend the agony implied by that use of “first,” as another son, Jethro, died just last year. But while the Cave family’s pain is incomprehensible, I fully comprehend the impulses of fans and critics, who (for not malign reasons) attach a comprehensible narrative to the art they consume. So, rather than a logical progression from Push the Sky Away, Skeleton Tree is its own first chapter; that of the story of a father driven to genius by grief.
Maybe it would have happened anyway. Nick Cave is at the age when seriousness is a suit everybody wants you to try on. While I know not a single person who has listened to Ghosteen more than once, both the albums that surround it (Skeleton Tree and Carnage, Cave’s 2021 album with Warren Ellis) are, respectively, brilliant and a bracing (very Seidel-y) good time. Maybe critics–who previously took Cave seriously as the Token Goth To Be Taken Somewhat Seriously more than they considered him a songwriter on par with whatever DIY AOR they were buying/selling at any given time–would have come around anyway. Maybe Rick Rubin would eventually have come into play.
Like Batman and The Clash famously said, those who start off oppressed by the figures of beauty eventually live long enough to perform with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Or, as Cohen himself sang, being born with the gift of a golden voice is a real bitch.
But we’ll never know what might have happened, if the worst reckoning with one’s own mortality any of the Bad Seeds were forced to reckon with was the normal rate of lost loved ones found in any group of aging musicians operating out of a milieu that favored intravenous drug use. What happened happened. Outside the narrative, Push the Sky Away must settle for being well regarded, if not brilliant. Which might be for the best. When the profundity munitionists, those who rate art by its importance and assign it a number, start calling you a genius, look out. Those motherfuckers will transubstantiate you into a throw pillow if they can.
If Nick Cave is complicit in any of this is irrelevant. He’s being honest. He also is more aware than most that honesty performed is performance. He’s talked about his old weather journal where he kept a daily diary of the shit weather in England, in order to make the bad weather a kind of fiction. That said, until his family catches a fucking break, he’s blameless. And there’s also the true thing that, regardless of him ostensibly agreeing with the fan who called him a “hallmark card hippy,” he’s not that. Nor will he ever be. Just as he was never the cheap “rage, anger, hatred” salesman this particular idiot fan misunderstood him to be previously. The old and new Nick Caves still exist, complex and contradictory as they ever were, in the body and the persona of Nick Cave, as they do in any non-cartoon human or artist. The new lyrics can be scathing, Cave’s politics remain *cough* tough minded (verging on humanist libertarian), and The Red Hand Files are where his old lyrical impulses come through; the moralizing and high/low religiosity, the adjective comma adjectives, the beautiful this and that–undercut with some cursing. The advice column exists as an unreliable explainer, as a dramatic reenactment of the truth, just like the songs off of Murder Ballads. Even while his lyrics are increasingly impressionistic and elliptical, letting people project onto them the beauty they so badly need.
Nick Cave was 11 years old, hanging out with Anne Baumgarten in rural Wangaratta, when he first heard Leonard Cohen. His life was changed by Songs of Love and Hate. It’s impossible to imagine Cave’s voice, in both the physical and artistic sense, being what it is outside of the context of Leonard Cohen. Not in any pastiche or oppressive influence way, but in the way that it’s impossible to imagine Bob Dylan without Woody Guthrie.
The tone and tenor of Cave’s singing voice itself owes no small debt to Cohen’s. Cave's range allows a better chance to keep pace with all those choral backup singers the two men are so fond of. His voice allows for a bit more externalized shenanigans with which to deliver jeremiads on the topics that obsessed both songwriters; how babies are born, how babies are deformed, just what awaits those babies when they die, and just what kind of God would allow anything bad to happen to a baby in the first place. But even as Nick Cave’s vocals have grown stronger and more varied as he’s gotten older, Leonard Cohen’s baritone—sometimes coarse, sometimes fine—is always a thread running through it. It also seems plausible that Cave’s soundtrack work has been part of a lifetime project to surpass his hero by providing the music for a movie that has an even slower pace than McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Cave has covered a number of Cohen’s songs. Cohen saying that Cave “butchered” one of them, which he meant as a high compliment and said so, gave headline writers the day off, which was nice. The cover in question was “Avalanche,” and Cave’s version is beautiful and reverential. His version of “Tower of Song,” off the 1991 I’m Your Fan tribute album, is irreverent, bordering on disrespectful. And all the more beautiful for its slurring swagger. Therein lies an arc, maybe.
In Push the Sky Away’s title track, Cave sings “And some people say it’s just rock and roll/Oh but it gets you right down to your soul.” On The First Born is Dead’s “Tupelo,” all the way back in 1985, Cave sings “Mama rock your lil' one slow,” in the context of rock and roll being a religious, primal thing. On the opening track of Ghosteen, Cave sings “The song yearned to be sung/It was a spinning song/About the king of rock ‘n’ roll,” in the context of something else entirely, but still as part of a continuum.
In 20,000 Days on Earth, the Nick Cave Narrator describes his character’s songwriting method as starting with a little girl, then adding to the scenario a Mongolian cannibal (2013 was a different time), and then maybe bringing in a clown. If that doesn’t work, you shoot the clown.
All that has really changed is that maybe now the clown survives.
*(even if Christgau didn’t “trust Cohen's melancholy anapests any more than I do his deadpan despair”)
- Cave’s Christianity is up for debate, even within himself. Here he talks about seeing the world through metaphor. Maybe. But he’s also too much of a Flannery O’Connor fan to not at least consider the possibility that metaphor is a cop out. Not that I’m pulling for him to join an organized religion, but it’d also be a shame to just use faith as some sort of stigmata beard; an excuse to deliver grandiloquent imagery with conviction. Accept Christ, my dude. Why not? Believing in stuff is sick.
- Like the above, a lot of what I talk about in the essay is covered extensively in The Red Hand Files. As they sort of drive me crazy, I didn’t read them all. So if there’s anything in them that directly contradicts any of my theories, keep it to yourself and let the smug secret knowledge be your umbrella-a-a-a. (jk you can tell me.)
- Another point, about nobody but me being wise and insightful enough to fully appreciate Push the Sky Away, is ably proven wrong by this nice Stereogum appreciation. The author is certainly a partisan of the Grand Nick Cave Narrative, but I was more dismayed that he published a number of my other points before I did. Fuck him. (jk. It’s a good essay.)
- When discussing the Bad Seeds shift from noir-esque to neo-noir soundtracking, I wanted to compare Push the Sky Away to Johnny Mandel’s soundtrack to Point Blank (1967), if that score was written by Cliff Martinez for The Limey. Because, like, they’re both noir movies from different eras, that both use sound in weird ways, and The Limey is a tribute to Point Blank. The analogy is fun, but not quite there. And, as is evident just from this note, it would have been a pickle to fit in as an aside. There are some run-on sentences that must be allowed to keep on running…
- Zohra was essential to the writing of this essay. You don't want to know about the drafts that existed before her incisive critique. There was a joke at the expense of the Stranglers, for which I was correctly chastised. Also, on one of the first nights we hung out, over a decade ago, I was deejaying Nick Cave and she pretended not to know who he was, and had me going for close to an hour. I was so flustered. Reader, I married her. Also, she has a solo album out in March and it's fucking amazing. So buy it. Here's her new video, and her song with Lydia Lunch.
- Finally, the line "describe their hysterical blues rock bands and Jesus Lizard tribute acts as "kind of like the Birthday Party,"" very much applies to me, lest anyone's feelings get hurt. We're all in this together.
THANKS FOR READING.