Sleepwalking the Streets
The famous mid-century poet, John Ciardi, once said, “Poetry lies its way to the truth,” and the pen behind The Maximus Poems, Charles Olson, once said of his own approach, “The basic understanding is that you don’t understand.” In the tool belt of a genuine artist, you’ll find the standards: ethos, pathos and lust, even. But of equal importance are awe, ambiguity and a sense of the author’s own wrestling to understand.
Much of the beauty, therefore, lies in a record of the creator’s grasping, straining, attempting to somehow clutch truth or beauty itself—or, if you’re really lucky, truth and beauty at the same time. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds know this already, and in their fifteenth studio album, Push the Sky Away, you’re not only listening to veteran artists engage their time-honed skills, but the sound of truth, beauty and the lies needed to get there.
In “Wide Lovely Eyes,” the rhythm propels with quiet romance, shaker and a palm-muted guitar line. Cotton-bordered keys sway like a child’s mobile. Dampened incidentals uncoil like toy springs. “They’ve hung the mermaids on the street lights by their hair,” croons Nick, before returning to the song’s celestial, nursery rhyme chorus. A many-layered scene is revealed with each lyric: a garden, a key, the seaside town, foaming white waves, a woman on the shore. “You wave and say goodbye,” says Nick of the mystery woman. Where’s she going? Who’s she to him—an ideal, a real person? Does it matter? No. An effect and emotion were created. That’s all that matters.
You’ll find many references and ideas throughout the album, including the old, time-honored cues: Greco-Roman (in “Jubilee Street,” the song’s prostitute “pushes the wheel of love” in a play on Sisyphus), Judeo-Christian (“Higgs Boson Blues” has Nick feeling oppressed, in a brilliant rhyme, like a “caliphate forced on the Jews”), and, probably the most salient of all, the beauty of a woman—her innocence, her innocence lost, her meaning to a man and, more specifically, to Nick himself. Each song is an ecclesiastic meditation—at turns sulking, loving and angry—on the polarities of life: purity versus corruption, permanence versus fleetingness, faith versus cynicism. The Bad Seeds lay a bed of looping, resigned sounds, and Nick does his best to sleep on it, wake up on it and think about it all night.
“I got a feeling I just can’t shake,” Nick sings on the album’s self-titled closer. “I got a feeling that just won’t go away.” Slow cathedral keys roll beneath his warm breath in the cold air—then Nick assures himself, no doubt at the edge of his bed: “You’ve got to just keep on pushing/keep on pushing/push the sky away.” Maybe at dawn, Nick, it’ll all make sense. But in the meantime, there’s still the sound of truth, beauty and the lies needed to get there.