I must confess that while Nick Cave is someone whose music I’ve been familiar with over the years, I can’t speak with confidence about the quality or merits of any of his latter day solo albums. So, if this is a triumphant return to form or merely of a continuation of brilliance, I can’t say. However, that really has little bearing on my ability to state with assuredness that Cave’s new album Push the Sky Away is a masterful album of minimalist, lounge-pop with a jagged edge of dark, atmospheric post-punk.
Cave is an artist whose contribution to music approaches the point of immeasurability—up there with folks like Dylan, Cash, Lennon, Waits or most especially Leonard Cohen. In fact, although their early careers differ drastically, more and more it feels like Cohen is the master, leading the way as Cave follows dutifully, the latter’s shiny black shoes perfectly fitting the already imprinted footsteps.
Cave’s imagery and content, like Cohen’s, confronts facets of human beauty and frailty, the seedy and the sublime. On the opener, Cave chants, “And we know who you are/ and we know where you live/ and we know there’s no need to forgive,” a line perfectly constructed to evoke ambiguity—is forgiveness unnecessary because of resolution or futility? Is this a song of hope or resignation? Cave croons over simple organ on “Wide Lovely Eyes” before his voice goes Tom Waits-esque on the churning, tribalistic “Water’s Edge,” where he intones darkly, “Their legs wide to the world like bibles open/ To be speared and taking their bodies apart like toys.”
Undeniably, the album’s high point is “Jubilee Street.” Cave thought so too, making one of the album’s singles. In fact, he so emphatically believed in the song’s quality that he even wrote a song about writing it: later album track “Finishing Jubilee Street.” The former song’s instrumentation is less suppressed than almost anywhere else on the record; sparse electric notes slide up and down the fretboard, Velvet Underground “Heroin”-like strings sing out eerily, drums balance the mix, and a tambourine provides an uncommon flourish. Seedy and suggestive, lyrics like “A girl’s gotta make ends meet/ even down on Jubilee Street,” contrast with the song’s celebratory moniker. Lyrically, Cave soars here, singing, “I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain/ And ten ton catastrophe on a 60 pound chain/ And I’m pushing my wheel of love on Jubilee Street”—lines that impressively extend a metaphor and create a visceral and gruesome image. Later on, “Higgs Boson Blues” sounds like the most sinister version of Bruce Springsteen imaginable as Cave rattles off quick, talky rhymes over gently distorted chords and rumbling toms.
The album ends with the title track, a song that could be seen as an endorsement of dwelling in dismal darkness as indicated by the figure shielding her face from the light on the album’s cover. However, with hopeful climbs and choral singing comprising the song’s structure, I prefer to think that Cave is singing about the oppressive nature of all the things that can prevent us from achieving that ultimate self-actualization. As the sky comes down on all of us, we must each keep pushing it away. On his newest album, whatever sky attempted to weigh him down, Nick Cave has certainly pushed away to create a subtle and expertly rendered masterpiece.