Who are these shadow-shadow men, these aged male characters with an overbearing sense of Nabokov’s precious butterflies, engaging in lurid acts, over-glorifying their outlets, expressing their instinctual libido on Freudian sexual development malpractice terms? What narrative value is still left in analyzing the horrible man, painting his noble savage portrait of the “hooker with the heart of gold,” finding freedom in the oppression of another? Lolita is hardly a portrait of the child Dolores, more so a romanticizing self-portrait of the man Humbert Humbert. Nick Cave’s Jubilee Street is less about “Jubilee Street” or “B,” and more about the same absent character who should “practice what I preach” and has “a fetus on a leash.” This idea/portrait is extended into the meta-scope of “Finishing Jubilee Street,” where the “writer” of “Jubilee Street” (impossibly Nick Cave as whoever Nick Cave is; he’s too smart and practiced to work without poetic license) confronts the effects of this kind of character obsession, falling into a fever dream of sexual anxiety for losing a young-girl bride named Mary Stanford. It’s an almost too perfect analysis, “Last Night your shadow scampered up the wall/ It flies/ And leaped like a black spider between your legs/ And cried/ ‘My children, my children/ They are lost to us,’” or distant waves and waves of distant love” (“Wide Lovely Eyes”); the album is scattered with bits about aging, memory, and obsession, shadows and light contrasts, the same thematic qualities that plague Nabokov’s Mr. Shadow.
Leave it to Nick Cave to actually bring something new to this well-worn artistic conversation. While not always deliberate, the repeated allusions to memory and shadows that run through Push The Sky Away show their relationship to modern analysis of the thematic problem presented in Lolita: the conflict of age and memory. Except that Cave’s representation illustrates the decay of permanently fixed memories, deteriorating willfully in the face of informational mounds and gluts, not Humbert Humbert’s poetic ooze of pedophilia, the contrast of the movement of age and the stasis of memory (or, as expressed by Proust in Time Regained: “Indeed nothing is more painful than this contrast between the mutability of people and the fixity of memory[…]”). Cave’s is that of memories in half-life in accelerating decay: “Wikipedia is heaven/ When you don’t want to remember anymore (“We Real Cool”), or “You’re the best girl I ever had/ Can’t remember anything at all” (“Higgs Boson Blues”). Most of Cave’s characters have the Humbert/shadow problem, yet they exist in a time and space where memory is stored in data banks so that trivial facts (with their strange pertinence on “truth”) can be recalled without the space of the brain being required.
Even with all of this depth, Push The Sky Away finds Cave doing more with less lyrically. The closest he comes to a “Babe I’m On Fire,” a “We Call Upon the Author,” or a “There She Goes My Beautiful World” is “Higgs Boson Blues,” but this song at most is still half of the lyrical content of the comparative songs. Very little is alluded to or explained in terms of “Jubilee Street’s” “fetus on a leash,” or how his use of “We real cool” relates to Gwendolyn Brooks’ first and most well-known poetic line from “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” But much like Brooks’ poem, the relationship to the subjects is made vague for sake of not undermining the relationship and emotional complexity of the subject(s), working musical lyricism’s best quality, the ability to create large expressions with most of the keys missing, the “Iceberg Theory.” This is not something Cave was previously incapable of (“Let Love In,” “Love Letter”), but to have a whole album utilizing pop structural minimalism works to dispel the myth of the hyper-worded, spitting, gothic preacher. It’s a different direction for Cave to exercise poetic license, as in how little can he give the listener while still taking on the darker edges of human memory?
We’re generally wont to desire Nick Cave on Grinderman terms, the leering, fiery, spitting, psychosexual beast man, unless you’re one who prefers his tortured piano-ballad crooner side, which this also isn’t. This feels quite markedly different from the other Bad Seeds output, a Cave who sings “And some people say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll/ Oh, but it gets you right down to your soul” over one of the least rock ‘n’ roll things The Bad Seeds have created, a nearly beat-less, spinning synth drone (albeit with a very, very buried guitar). Like the lyrical quality, it’s subtle, not really striking in its differences at first listen, working with less, achieving the same grand gestures that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds are capable of while not conforming to their previous incarnations. Warren Ellis’ contributions past the violin are quite welcome here and the kind of delivery with which Cave matches the low-end, heavy sounds complement each other incredibly well. And when Cave does yell, when he enters briefly into that fire sermon outfit, it shows that he’s still capable, yet restraining for the sake of dynamic.
Gracing these themes of memory stasis vs. memory loss without the heavy-handed morality, the effect feels light at first, but this is an album whose transgressions reveal themselves slowly rather than forcefully. Cave’s characters may very well feel like they can’t remember, but it’s the same thing they remember over and over (as the problem transubstantiates from character to writer), and as the ability to misremember disappears, so do the abilities to rely on memory and to create new ones outside of the existing lexicon of collective memory. It’s incredible how well Cave can present a song where both Robert Johnson and Miley Cyrus show up in the same mythology, both as equally important as the other, neither one but a strained memory/invention of a man singing the blues for a scientific event he hardly understands, of which he still vows to preach/tell to his best gal. Is this not how we generally might become? Delusional enlightened beings in the 21st century, the offhand knowledge ready to be recalled whenever we need it, yet never there for us to think upon in a combined selfish and selfless mind, living in our own fictions and “simulated rainy seasons,” crying with dolphins that don’t exist, left to float in a pool of our own mythologies?