Push the Sky Away is Nick Cave's 15th album with the Bad Seeds. But his post-millennial endeavors also include the novel The Death of Bunny Munro, screenplays for The Proposition and Lawless, several film soundtracks, and two albums with the scuzzy quartet Grinderman. Yet despite the long, dark shadow of past achievements from the Australian songwriter, the complexity of Push the Sky Away made it difficult to discuss anything else. On the album, lyrics about spiritual dilemmas, depravity, and, yes, Miley Cyrus are underpinned by the Bad Seeds' versatile rock minimalism, tape-loop flourishes, and melancholy orchestral accents. Ahead of his show in S.F. this week, Cave reflected on the glorious degradation of "Jubilee Street," his self-imposed compositional challenges, and modern science's apparent negation of God.
You recorded Push the Sky Away over several weeks in an isolated studio and living environment. Was that situation helpful for switching back into Bad Seeds mode after working with Grinderman?
It was actually amazing, because we hadn't spent any time together for quite a while. Part of the idea of a residential studio was that we'd all be thrown together, which either was going to work or be a recipe for disaster, but everyone got on great. There was great warmth among us with the making of this record.
We wanted to make a great record, and that's not always the case. Records can have very different atmospheres. Sometimes everyone seems completely pissed off, sometimes people are there, and sometimes they're not there. Sometimes there is a jostling of power. There are all of these psychodramas that can go on during the making of a record, but with this particular record there was just great warmth.
When you went into the studio, did you explain to the band what you were looking for musically?
I never do. I never talk to the band that way. Some things were put into place beforehand. Like, that Thomas Wydler would play the drums. Jim Sclavunos had been playing the drums on Grinderman records and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, but I wanted Thomas to play all of the drums on this record. That set in motion a consistency of sound, which was something that me and Warren [Ellis; multi-instrumentalist] were both looking for. The idea that you're entering a record with its own atmosphere was inherent in the lyrics and in some of the ideas before we went into the studio.
But I don't sit down with the band and say what kind of a record we're going to make next because I don't know what kind of a record it's going to be. We recorded a bunch of songs, and then it was week until we listened to everything back and it was only then that we suddenly had some idea of what this record was or its implications. Like, "Oh, it's that kind of record."
Critics have been predicting the demise of the album since the turn of the century, but Push the Sky Away functions best when heard altogether. When you're writing songs, do you do so with the idea of making an album in mind?
Yeah, I'd say so. The idea that the songs refer to one another, that they're a community of songs, that it aids in the process of understanding the record to listen to all of the songs – these ideas are very important in the making of this record. Even though we're fully aware of these ideas being basically redundant these days, or people claiming that they're redundant, I personally feel that there are people out there craving this kind of thing, being able to engage with music in a deeper way.
You've shifted back and forth between sparseness and cutting loose throughout your career. Are you ever tempted to settle into one approach and stay there?
I don't think that we're deliberately trying to make records different from each other. The band is a living, breathing thing. It grows in the same way we do as human beings and if it doesn't, it dies. It's important to feed the organism and one way of doing that is to set musical challenges that keep it alive.
What sort of challenges did you set for yourself on
Push the Sky Away?
First of all, I wanted to write music that was quieter and more atmospheric, but I wanted to get away from the classic Nick Cave ballad. So, that meant getting away from the idea of verse/chorus in songwriting, which is a huge step for me. There's much less of a linear feel in the songwriting, and that created a whole different way of writing lyrics. The lyrics on this record are very different from what I've done on previous records. They remain narrative, but the narrative is much more fractured and atmospheric than in the past. I'm very pleased about that. It's just the way I write. I write narrative stories. It's the way I think. I have to see the lyrics for them to make any sense to me, but I hate the tyranny of the narrative as well, where you're forced to listen to a story in my songs. With this record, I don't think you have to listen to the lyrics in a linear way for them to have an effect.
The lyrics to "We No Who U R" or "Higgs Boson Blues" are very allusive, rather than concretely narrative. Everyone's noting the very modern allusions, like Wikipedia, Miley Cyrus, and Hannah Montana. Why have you avoided such datable references until now?
I think a press release went out that noted something like that, and so consequently everybody's noticing it. There are lines like that, but it's not something I haven't done before. If you look at "Abattoir Blues," there is a telescoping between time that happens. There's a line about a Frappuccino, but it feels like the song exists in one era and then it pulls you into a different era. "Datable" is a good word, and there are references like that.
The song "Dig, Lazarus, Dig" bends eras in the same way.
Yes, it does. I've been doing it for years!
I'm particularly interested in your use of the Higgs Boson, or the so-called "God Particle." Were you following coverage of its discovery closely? I know you do a lot of research for songs.
It was a nice piece of serendipity that it was discovered while we were recording that song in the studio. One of the engineers ran in and said, "You know that Higgs Boson thing you're singing about? It exists." That was nice. It wasn't written as a response to the discovery, but to the experiment itself. I'd written that song a year before it was discovered.
A lot of people must assume it's a response to the discovery, since many people didn't know what it was until then.
The song is actually about the guy going down to find out if it exists or not. In the press, there was the idea that if they discovered the Higgs Boson, which would be the origin of matter, that God didn't exist. So, it's a song about going to find out if God exists and in the meantime witnessing these spiritual calamities.
In that sense, the Higgs Boson ties in pretty wonderfully to themes you've explored throughout your career. Did it begin with the Higgs Boson or was that applied after?
I'm publishing the notebook I used for the writing of this record. I got this new notebook the day I started writing the record and everything is in it. It shows that it takes a long time for the Higgs Boson to find the song.
One of the album's most musically exalted moments arrives at the end of "Jubilee Street," following the character's declaration that he's above recriminations and he's flying. Why did you choose to resolve that song with such a lofty-sounding ending?
The idea of songwriting is a transformative thing, and what I do with songwriting is take situations that are quite ordinary and transform them in some way. Apart from things like the murder ballads, the songs I write, at their core, are quite ordinary human concerns, but the process of writing about them transforms them into something else. The actual story of "Jubilee Street" is a small, nasty, and tawdry tale of degradation. Through that, there's a transformative process where the protagonist becomes exalted through degradation.