This album is very much about seeing, not necessarily judging or touching - but acknowledging what is there, or was there, even: "They've dismantled the funfair/and shut down the rides/and hung the mermaids from streetlights by their hair". These lines speak of the destruction of our landscapes as much as the killjoy antics of governments, as well as the oppression and sexual objectification of women, pulling them from the freedom and sanctuary of the sea and using them as senseless artefacts.You don't need to know Nick Cave resides in Brighton to detect the sea-side town backdrop to much of this record. You can smell the spray beating against promenade, hear the beat of the tide, the endless ebb and flow in the hypnotic, relentless riffs on songs such as Jubilee Street and Higgs Boson Blues.
These two songs are the masterpieces on the album for me, though each track is a tidy piece of intrigue, and there is much quivering beauty lapping against the shores in both Warren Ellis's sensitively attuned multi-instrumentalism and Cave's mythical lyrics and intimate delivery on the album as a whole. In an age of dumbed-down soundbites, it's gratifying to hear such poetry on a record in 2013.
'Jubilee Street' may or may not refer to a street of this name in Brighton. There are Jubilee Streets all over the country so choosing a name like this is immediately both universal and localized as well as possibly being a nod to the Queen and Country to "practice what they preach". The Brighton street of this name now houses the new modernized library and some fancy coffee shops and restaurants. The place Cave is singing about delves into what lies beneath apparent respectability. The song depicts prostitution and obsession, hypocrisy and guilt. Ultimately it appears to lead to either transcendence, or some kind of out of the body experience - or possibly death "’I'm transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowing/I’m flying, look at me/I’m flying, look at me now" I'm not sure that this song really ends – rather - it just seems to lose consciousness and hang overhead… Only to return to haunt itself a few tracks along with Finishing Jubilee Street. Here, the narrator seems to be Cave (because he says in the first line that he's just finished writing Jubilee Street) so it appears to be him rather than the character in the original song, though boundaries are blurred right through the record, in time zones, in people, in where the sky ends. This narrator falls asleep and awakes from a peculiarly vivid dream of a girl called Mary Stanford. I get the impression this has some bearing on a historical reality - a real person but from a bygone age who has visited him in a dream. There seems to be a jumbled story that can't fully be grasped as is often the nature with dreams but the message seems to be that the sky will devour "my children" so we need to "push the sky away". Whether this is metaphor or a fable or a dream is not clear but it sheds some light on the album's title, the opening track about the trees with pleading hands trying to hold off the invasion of the sky, and the strange underlying current the songs all seem to possess, a disconcerting kind of lullaby quality that rocks you to sleep but not necessarily to sweet dreams.
The epic Higson Blues is the penultimate track. "I can't remember anything at all" Cave commences before embarking on a strange journey involving the devil, Robert Johnson, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana and presumably the enigmatic Higgs Boson particle which may or may not exist and does it matter anyway? Cave's voice is literally dripping with jaded summer exhaustion, he groans his way through the dust and confusion and the song ends where it started with his inability to remember anything at all. This is where it feels very inviting to slip into amnesia but I don't think this album will let you do that. You may fall asleep but you will wake up with another puzzle. And so it goes on.
Even when your stereo is silent, this album will find a way to inhabit your head. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are back and though the sky feels ominous, it's too compelling not to watch this extraordinary album unfurl.
Review by Mary O Meara