Barry Adamson: Documentary Evidence Interview (2004)

That Old Jazz Devil Called Love: The Barry Adamson interview

Barry Adamson

I completed this email interview with Barry Adamson back in 2004, just after he’d left Mute, released a new rough track called ‘Harlem’ as a free download, performed with Russell Maliphant at The Barbican and was experimenting with making music on Macs. It was only just over ten years ago, but releasing music as a download was still something pretty new, hence his comments on the ‘political’ nature of releasing music this way. Back in 2004 I was still pretty new to conducting interviews, hence why this appears as a question and answer-style feature.

Former Magazine bassist Barry Adamson was for over ten years the very essence of the quintessential Mute Records artist – eclectic, prolific and highly popular, just thankfully never a chart act. His work traversed many, many musical boundaries and genres from soul to hip-hop through to noir film scores. Parallel work as a remixer saw him reconfigure tracks by Recoil, The Wolfgang Press and Nitzer Ebb, drawing on his considerable skills as a sound designer. His work has received plaudits from the likes of Portishead and Nine Inch NailsTrent Reznor, who picked Adamson to provide tracks for his Natural Born Killers soundtrack. Barry left Mute in 2003, and Mat Smith caught up with him the following year for a few questions.

MAT SMITH: I’ve just visited Manchester for the first time. I imagine that the city’s changed quite considerably, and now looks to be a carbon copy of the trendiest parts of London. Does the city still provide you with as much inspiration as it did for Moss-Side Story? What does inspire you?

BARRY ADAMSON: Well. I left Manchester some time ago, before the Happy Mondays and all of that era, but the city as I knew it then provided me with a historical noir backdrop of crime and decay, which I was completely drawn to. I guess my youth was impressed like a thumb into clay by the spirit of people living the way they did, when they did and how. How they relieved poverty through a whole myriad of entertainment; how the influence of black culture affected this and how movies might mirror these events. This model dominated my work for some time and perhaps other versions in other towns offer me similar yet different interest. I’m writing a screenplay which is clothed by London, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, and New York. So this kind of inspiration continues.

MS: Manchester is an important part of the history of the UK music scene – like London and Liverpool – and you were a player in that nascent scene with Howard Devoto in Magazine. Are you able to look back on those times now happily, or are you glad they’re behind you?

BA: Magazine was an incredibly happy time for me. It was like going to a school where you had a laugh all the time and the girls fancied you and the boys thought you were cool as a fuck. A bit like the juniors where it’s OK to fall over and cry at the blood spilling down your leg and then to get running again, laughing your ass of. None of which could have ever prepared me for the psychological, physical and spiritual slaughter of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds!

MS: Mute Records was your UK home for many years, and I was somewhat surprised that you have jumped ship. What prompted the move from the label? Your (presumably tongue-in-cheek) press release on the website states that you were given a gold watch, and I kind of got the impression that you were glad to be free?

BA : Well. There comes a point in everyone’s life… This was my point. I’d been here before: a kind of giddiness at the possible betrayal but knowing that the car you’re driving needs to go and a newer model (plus the fear of the possible cost) has to become the next avenue to walk/run down. As Joy Division once said – ‘A change of scene / A change of style / With no regrets.

MS: The new track, ‘Harlem’, is absolultely superb – obviously Adamson in an instantly-recognisable way, but a progession of sorts. Does the fact that this was made available as a download indicate a shift in the way that your music will be marketed? Are you in favour of downloads, or do you fall into the camp that would be against the widespread development of this?

BA: Without getting into this question too much from a political standing, yes absolutely on the idea that BA will now be a download purchase affair with ideas about having a specific photo info section available for each project. I guess for a while some hard copies will be available but it won’t be long before you can download your whole day! ‘Harlem’ was a tiny experiment. the standards were just above demo as far as I was concerned. I did it in a day but thought it good enough to give away I wanted to give something to the people who bother to sign up and they say such incredibly supportive things. In the future the songs and music will be mastered and obsessively detailed as usual.

MS: Many of your songs have an improvised tone to them, but you are credited as the sole author. How do your songs come about – what’s the process of getting them from an idea to being fully recorded? How do you decide which instruments / players will be used?

BA: Wow. The secrets of the BA? Let me see. Starts in the head. That fool was me was in a dream I had in Australia. The lot. Words, music, melody. Boom. I woke up and copied it up in 15 mins. That’s rare. Normally? You hear it and then the job is to arrange it so folk can dig it. Starts with me. Do I dig it? Do I get off on you diggin’ it? Instruments are tried and tested. Some come without effort, others you must wait for further inspiration. There are players who are so connected to themselves that they understand even my crudest of languages that rely on feeling and movie image. Those are the cats you keep in your book. It’s all a process.

MS: At the Barbican Only Connect concert in April, I noticed you were making use of a Mac. How has this changed the way you compose / perform?

BA: It’s amazing to sit with that thing and make very colourful sketches of ideas, some of which remain in the final mix. I remember recording Real Life with Magazine and after everybody went to bed, getting up again and making tracks into a cassette of sequences and stuff, using the keyboards and effects units. The G4 is kinda the same theory to me. I love the modern world of technology for the G4 alone!

MS: And finally, what’s next for Barry Adamson? New album? Tour? A totally different way of presenting your music? More soundtracks?

BA: I’m writing music everyday. Some for projects and some for myself. I’m gagging to make film. I’m preparing the way for this to happen. I would like to bring out some work online and then play live. The world is mine. Plus three weeks ago I had another son. Edmondo Lucas George Adamson. That’s my latest release!

First published 2004; re-edited 2015.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence


Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call (Mute Records album, 1997)

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 'The Boatman's Call' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd/c stumm142 | 03/03/1997

I was tempted to write this review with just one word. That word is ‘beautiful’. Allegedly written by Nick Cave at exactly the same time as Murder Ballads, these songs were written with simplicity in mind, and as such the majority of these superior compositions feature a stripped back Bad Seeds, and a heavy dose of piano. The contrast with Murder Ballads could not be greater, taking a deeply intimate, romantic and often spiritual tone. No-one dies here, one may be relieved to know.

But maybe a little part of Nick Cave died in order to make a collection of songs; that part of him was the preacher, the aggressor, the dervish spirit howling and caterwauling over a maelstrom of sensational music, and that character wouldn’t emerge again until the later Grinderman project. It genuinely isn’t a criticism – I happen to think that The Boatman’s Call is among Cave’s finest work. Everything about album is black and white – the Johnny Cash-esque Anton Cobijn photo of a particularly troubled Nick Cave on the front cover, through the predominance of the piano keys across the LP, through to the downright clarity of Cave’s songwriting. What’s most clear about The Boatman’s Call is the often obvious theme of these songs, for this is Nick Cave’s most directly personal collection of ideas, from the post-PJ Harvey reflectiveness of the quirky folk leanings of ‘West Country Girl’ and ‘Black Hair’, through to his ruminations on his failed marriage on ‘People Just Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’.

However, aside from a fair amount of openness from our tortured songsmith, The Boatman’s Call also features two genuinely beautiful love songs – ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Brompton Oratory’. Like much of the album, these have a musical accompaniment from The Bad Seeds that is directly informed by subtle jazz but the latter also features a perfectly twee Casio rhythm that sounds like it survived from Cave’s original demo. The latter describes a trip made by Cave to Kensington’s famous, and imposing, landmark, and finds Cave wishing he were one of the stone apostles therein, just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his muse’s intense beauty. It perfectly captures the intensity of romance’s first flourishes, that feeling of not being able to cope anymore. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is just mystical and beautiful, its waterside setting making me think of Murder Ballads’ ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, with all the same romantic longings, just none of the death; an alternative ending, perhaps?

The album features the full Bad Seeds line-up (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), albeit in controlled doses, and benefits from an unusually restrained production job from Flood, who also produced the oft-slated U2 album Pop the same year. The style of production is subtle and delicate, and Cave’s vocal is dominant in the mix, casting a personal, intimate shadow over proceedings, making this the closest Cave has yet come to the introspection of Leonard Cohen. It feels like a one-to-one connection between the narrator and sympathetic listener. Warren Ellis’ violin is also an important element here, receiving greater space in the mix than previously, bestowing the gypsy folk of ‘West Country Girl’ with a rabidly maudlin edge. His work on ‘Idiot Prayer’, perhaps the track closest to a classic Bad Seeds ballad sees his violin overtaking Blixa’s fuzzy guitar as lead instrument, a sign of the sea change that was to come.

I have my own, highly personal reasons, for counting this among my favourite albums of all time. Suffice it to say, seven years on, it’s the more miserable tracks here – like the personally chord-resounding ‘Far From Me’ – that I find myself reflecting on of that period in my life. ‘Can’t you find somebody else / That you can ring and tell?‘, Cave sings on that penultimate, delicately poignant song. Those would become wise words for my younger self.


I was minded to re-post this review after hearing the lead single from this album, the delicate ‘Into My Arms’ at the end of Richard Curtis’s About Time movie. It’s been a long time since I heard this album and for the personal reasons alluded to above, it’s one that I now find relatively hard to contemplate listening to. In the movie, Cave’s track is chosen by the dying Bill Nighy as the soundtrack for his own wake, lending the track a greater poignancy than perhaps Cave ever even intended.

A couple of years ago someone at Mute sent me a link to a YouTube rip of some songs that were recorded for The Boatman’s Call sessions but which have never surfaced except for on an expensive bootleg CD. The tracks that didn’t make it to the final album were every bit as perfect as the ones that were on the final release, a telling testament to the furious level of output that Cave was enjoying in this period of his life. The twin albums of Murder Ballads and The Boatman’s Call thus stand as one of the most pivotal periods in Cave’s career as a songwriter, marking a crossing place, a transition and the start of his wider public acceptance as one of the finest lyricists of our generation.

Track list:


A1. / 1. Into My Arms
A2. / 2. Lime-Tree Arbour
A3. / 3. People Ain’t No Good
A4. / 4. Brompton Oratory
A5. / 5. There Is A Kingdom
A6. / 6. Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?
B1. / 7. (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?
B2. / 8. West Country Girl
B3. / 9. Black Hair
B4. / 10. Idiot Prayer
B5. / 11. Far From Me
B6. / 12. Green Eyes

For information on other formats go to:

First published 2004; re-edited 2014. This review focusses on the 1997 original release, not the remastered, expanded 2011 edition.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – The Tyranny Of The Beat (The Grey Area Of Mute album, 1991)

Various Artists 'The Tyranny Of The Beat - Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area' CD artwork

the grey area of mute | cd agrey1 | 1991

The Tyranny Of The Beat – Original Soundtracks From The Grey Area was a 1991 compilation issued by Mute to showcase releases from its Grey Area sub-label. The Grey Area specialised in reissuing the back catalogues of Cabaret Voltaire (their Rough Trade releases), Can, Throbbing Gristle (plus various Industrial Records acolytes), Graeme Revell‘s SPK and many others. The label also became home to early albums by artists that had been signed to Mute, such as Nick Cave‘s pre-Birthday Party band The Boys Next Door, D.A.F., Wire and Einstürzende Neubauten.

The reissue programme conducted by Mute through The Grey Area inevitably produced a varied counterpoint to the releases issued through the main Mute imprint, through Paul Smith‘s hugely diverse Blast First (which itself, at times, also reissued plenty of older material) and NovaMute. Alongside The Fine Line, specialising predominantly in soundtracks for TV, film and theatre, The Grey Area represented a hugely interesting opportunity to hear some out-of-print releases on CD for the first time.

There days, at least nominally, The Grey Area no longer exists. Can reissues have never officially carried the logo, and whilst Mute remains the custodian of the seminal Cologne unit’s back catalogue, it is done in partnership with Can’s own Spoon imprint; Cabaret Voltaire’s latest reissue programme through Mute is done through the main label and consequently all releases now carry stumm catalogue codes, and Throbbing Gristle effectively bought back their work to reopen the doors of Industrial Records. The opportunity to reinvigorate The Grey Area upon securing the opportunity to reissue the Swans back catalogue in 2014, alongside the Cabs programme, feels like something of a missed opportunity.

The Tyranny Of The Beat then serves as a useful overview of what The Grey Area were up to at this point in the early Nineties. A small four-page flyer inside the sleeve highlighted just how comprehensive the reissue programme undertaken by Mute was through the sub-label – after all, they were effectively re-releasing whole or sizeable elements of back catalogues, not sporadic releases. The flyer also included some items that were planned for releases but which have never materialised – chief among these was the Robert Rental / The Normal live album recorded at West Runton, which Rough Trade had released in 1980 as a one-sided LP.

The sleeve also features liner notes from Biba Kopf, famed NME journalist and currently (under his real name Chris Bohn) the editor of The Wire. Kopf also wrote the copy for the Documentary Evidence brochure which inspired this site.

The breadth of music included in sampler form on The Tyranny Of The Beat is impressive, taking in the grubby pulse of TG’s live track ‘See You Are’, their Industrial signees Monte Cazazza with the truly horrible ‘Candyman’, a bit of early electro from the Cabs, the detached punk of Swell Maps‘ brilliant ‘Midget Submarines’, the similarly aquatic ‘Our Swimmer’ by Wire (still one of their best Seventies pieces), a truly ethereal piece by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert / Graham Lewis as Dome with A.C. Marias and the still-devastating Rowland S. Howard-penned ‘Shivers’ by The Boys Next Door. Can’s ‘Oh Yeah’ – one of Daniel Miller‘s personal favourite tracks – provides a rhythmic counterweight to the urgent mechanical production-line beats of Neubauten’s ‘Tanz Debil’ and Die Krupps‘s ‘Wahre Arbeit, Whare Lohn’. Dark relief comes in the form of SPK’s ‘In Flagrante Delicto’, a track which suggests Graeme Revell was always destined to compose the scores for spooky, suspense-filled films like The Craft.

Like a lot of sampler albums, The Tyranny Of The Beat can sound a little uneven, and whilst a lot of these bands were part of common scenes – industrial, punk, the terribly-named Krautrock – it would have been a pretty weird festival if this was the line-up.

Kopf’s liner notes deserve a mention, if only for the way that he positions the concept of a grey area as a place that people run to for escape or as a means of consciously assaulting musical norms, a place that both acted as a reaction against the regimentation of beats and simultaneously gave birth to the repetitive rhythms of techno. ‘In The Grey Area you get the sense of limits being pushed up against and breached,’ he says, and even now, listening to Genesis P. Orridge deliver a maniacal vocal over corruscating waves of sinister noise from a distance of thirty-five years, or Monte Cazazza’s detached multi-channel reportage of a serial killer’s victims and the nauseatingly vivid listing of the savagery he put those victims through, you can see exactly where Kopf was coming from.

Track listing:

1. SPK ‘In Flagrante Delicto’
2. Throbbing Gristle ‘See You Are (Live, The Factory July 1979)’
3. Cabaret Voltaire ‘Automotivation’
4. Chris Carter ‘Solidit (Edit)’
5. Die Krupps ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahre Lohn’
6. D.A.F. ‘Co Co Pina’
7. Einstürzende Neubauten ‘Tanz Debil’
8. NON ‘Cruenta Voluptas’
9. Can ‘Oh Yeah’
10. Wire ‘Our Swimmer (Live, Notre Dame Hall July 1979)’
11. Swell Maps ‘Midget Submarines’
12. The Boys Next Door ‘Shivers’
13. Dome ‘Cruel When Complete’
14. Monte Cazazza ‘Candyman’
15. The Hafler Trio ‘A Thirsty Fish / The Dirty Fire’

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Various Artists – The Vox Spring Collection (covermount album, 1999)

Various Artists 'The Spring Collection' CD artwork

vox | cd sc99 | 06/1999

Ordinarily I wouldn’t mention Mute acts appearing on covermount cassettes or CDs on this blog unless a track was an exclusive mix or edit, or if the compilation itself was Mute-focussed. However, whilst clearing out old CDs recently I came upon this one, which I’ve always loathed because of its sleeve, and inside the sleeve I found two clippings from the issue of the long-defunct Vox that this came with (June 1999).

The clippings were taken from the customary page in the magazine that described the tracks, and included explanatory comments from Nick Cave and Barry Adamson on the songs that were included on the album (‘Red Right Hand’ from Cave’s best-of, and ‘Jazz Devil’ from Adamson’s As Above, So Below). These have been reproduced below, mainly because I thought they were quite useful to retain. Also reproduced are the comments from the liner notes to the CD itself.

The CD also includes ‘Suzy Parker’ by The Hybirds, Richard Warren‘s pre-Echoboy band who had just released their debut album on Heavenly. The liner notes for that have also been reproduced (one wonders what the band made of the ‘dadrock’ comment), but as I had no idea that Warren would metamorphose into Mute’s Echoboy, I never bothered to keep the magazine notes on this song. The inclusion of The Hybirds on this CD in turn prompts the recollection that I caught the tail end of a live set by the band at Colchester Arts Centre on 16 February 1997. The band were supporting Beth Orton, who at the time was my then-girlfriend’s favourite singer. A bunch of us went to watch Orton at our local music venue; it was supposed to be our first Valentine’s weekend together, but instead we seemed to spend most of that weekend either apart or in the company of sundry friends of hers. Consequently I approached the Orton gig, and the Hybirds songs I heard, with a degree of disdain and over-critical resentment.

Nick Cave ‘Red Right Hand’

Sleeve: Originally from Let Love In, perhaps Cave’s finest LP, this also (rather bizarrely) appeared on the Dumb And Dumber soundtrack. ‘You’re just a microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan‘ moans Old Nick in this semi-comically melodramatic take on Stephen King’s The Stand.

Magazine: ‘I had a really wild band then, the best I’d ever had. They could all play, but they were ragged and raw, too. With The Birthday Party there was blues, soul and country, but it was all exploded, there was no kind of respect for anything. It was a machine that was whirling in its own direction and nobody knew what was happening really. The same musical influences are there, but now we respect then more, hold then truer.’

Barry Adamson ‘Jazz Devil’

Sleeve: He played with Magazine, Pete Shelley, and with Nick Cave in The Bad Seeds. Then he went solo to delve deeper into blues / soul / torch / pop / pretty much everything else and somehow remained cool throughout. This is as new as it gets.

Magazine: ‘People talk about the devil as some trickster, a cunning little devil. As far as the darker stuff on the album [As Above, So Below] goes, I wanted to be completely bleak and then relieve it with a humorous look at the dark side with this character that is destined to always be on earth.’

The Hybirds ‘Suzy Parker’

Sleeve: A crazy stream-of-consciouness tribute to the 60s model, and a prime cut from this increasingly popular, thrillingly realist Mansfield band’s eponymously-titled *****-rated debut LP. Dadrock simmering in youthful bile.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

The Ministry Of Wolves – Music From Republik Der Wölfe (Mute Records album, 2014)

The Ministry Of Wolves 'Music From Republik Der Wölfe' LP artwork

mute artists | lp/cd/i stumm360 | 10/03/2014

Republik der Wölfe is a theatre production commissioned by Theatre Dortmund’s artistic director Kay Voges and directed by Claudia Bauer which premiered on 15 February 2014. The music for the production comprised collaborations between Mick Harvey, Alexander Hacke, his girlfriend Danielle di Picciotto and Paul Wallfisch. Harvey is a veritable Mute stalwart given his tenure with bands like The Bad Seeds, and as a multi-instrumentalist and producer he has a reputation as being a highly skilled and versatile addition to any line-up. Hacke is a veritable Goliath – in both stature and reputation – who formed a crucial component of the noise onslaught of Einstürzende Neubauten and found himself offering a more nuanced role in Simon Bonney‘s Crime & The City Solution. Di Picciotto is an accomplished artist who formed part of the new Crime lineup that released American Twilight in 2012, and whose live visuals accompanied that album’s tour. Keyboard player and singer Wallfisch is founder of the New York group Botanica, a group whose music is variously described as ‘gypsy and punk-cabaret infused chamber rock’ and who have collaborated with Kid Congo Powers, another Bad Seeds alumnus.

The music takes its principal inspiration from the fairytales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the stories of whom will be familiar to more or less any child albeit viewed through a distinctly Disneyfied lens. The original stories by Grimm were a mix of the ethereal and macabre, drawing inspiration as much from folklore as the frighteningly original imagination of the two brothers. (By way of a recent anecdotal footnote, I was in a shop in the Germany pavilion at Disney’s EPCOT last month where they had copies of the collected Grimm tales for sale. Two Americans next to me were dumbfounded as to why these fairytales were in the Germany pavilion, so co-opted have they been by Hollywood over the past century that they are regarded as quintessentially American in origin.) Just like the original fairytales on which they are based, the music written by this group has an authentic air of dark mystery, sorcery and otherworldliness, making for an original body of work that exists happily – if strangely – without the visuals for which they were intended.

First, let us deal with the songwriting. My only real awareness of the original Grimm fairytales come from a combination of the sanitised Ladybird books and Disney movies of my youth, and my two daughters’ enduring fascination with fantastical princesses and mythical creatures. Consequently I have no real understanding of what the band are going on about here, though it’s clear from titles and some of the subject matter as to which particular story they are dealing with. Whether in the ethereal spoken word tracks from di Picciotto, the fragile double-tracked musings of Mick Harvey or Alex Hacke’s ominous intonation on ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ the guts of the story are evident, even to an ignorant like me. Only, the tone here is fundamentally dark, linking the songs to the original stories albeit through a thoroughly contemporary lens – the mischievous dwarf Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t, as far as I can tell, ever exhibited at a Coney Island funfair, for example. The whole thing is shrouded in a sinister, almost violent mysteriousness, knocking for six most versions of these tales.

Next, consider the music. Neither Harvey nor Hacke are strangers to composing music for theatre, and both Neubauten and Harvey (with Nick Cave) have albums in the Mute back catalogue that were commissioned for plays. Between the two of them their sense of space and detail is second to none, and when combined with Wallfisch’s piano – somewhere between bar-room blues and jazz – the whole thing swings with a depth and inventiveness that is in many ways more interesting than making sense of the vocals. An obvious reference point would be The Bad Seeds between Tender Prey and Let Love In (‘The Little Peasant’ even has ‘Red Right Hand’-esque organ vamps), but there’s also a relaxed, jazz-inflected dimension here too, cutting gently through the gloom. The start of ‘Cinderella’, with di Picciotto on vocals even sounds a lot like ‘The Carny’ from Cave’s The Firstborn Is Dead. For this reviewer the highlight is ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, a edgy stew of droning guitars, grungy vibes and a storyline delivered in German and English by Wallfisch that seems to relocate Little Red to a New York gangland scene.

Above all, this is an inventive album based on an interesting concept, produced by four individuals who, in their own right, are incredibly talented but who together can create something very special indeed. My only gripe is that it feels like this music really needs its visual dimension to completely make complete sense of this theatrical offering.

Listen to ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and watch di Picciotto’s making-of documentary below.

Track listing:

1. The Gold Key
A1. / 2. Rumpelstiltskin
A2. / 3. The Frog Prince
A3. / 4. Cinderella
A4. / 5. Rapunzel… (As Isdora Duncan)
B1. / 6. Hansel And Gretel
B2. / 7. Snow White (Heptagon)
B4. / 8. The Little Peasant
B3. / 9. Sleeping Beauty
A5. / 10. Iron Hans
11. Little Red Riding Hood
B5. / 12. White Snake Waltz

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Nick Cave Introduces The Gospel According To Mark (Canongate book, 1998)

'The Gospel According To Mark' book artwork

canongate | book | 1998

Nick Cave supplied an illuminating introduction to this small book, which formed part of a series of £1 editions of Biblical chapters. Other works in the series saw Will Self scribing an introduction to Revelation, and Fay Weldon introducing Corinthians.

I consider this illuminating, principally because it seems to offer up something of an explanation for the transition that Nick Cave’s music underwent as The Bad Seeds extrapolated the visionary fire and brimstone works that fell easily out of The Birthday Party‘s howling reverie, stretched that until it snapped, leaving a more mellow, almost meditative sound. ‘Up Jumped The Devil’, so the song goes, but despite running amok through Murder Ballads, it was pretty clear he was running away from Nick Cave.

Cave’s initial disdain for everything New Testament stems, according to his introduction, from his time in the Wangarafta Cathedral Choir in his pre-teens, and he uncharitably describes the book as ‘wishy-washy’ at best and ‘the decaf of worship’ at worst. The interest in the vengeful God of the Old Testament, meting out punishment and retribution to the nascent residents of his planet came from Cave’s interest in violent literature in his early twenties, fully explaining the nihilism which dominated both The Birthday Party and Nick’s own self-abuse.

So, what prompted the shift in focus from the Old to the New, the angry to the reflective? ‘You grow up,’ Cave explains. ‘You do. You mellow out. You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world.’

Cave attributes his turn toward the New Testament to a vicar who suggested he start with this very gospel, ostensibly because it was the shortest. He enthuses over Mark’s grasp of enthralling narrative gestures and mysterious simplicity, his portrait of Christ as a solitary figure and one focussed on the fate that he knew was ahead of him. Cave also cites Mark as continuing to influence his spirituality and religiousness: ‘The essential humanness of Mark‘s Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives, so that we have something that we can aspire to, rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.’

It’s a long, long way from ‘Nick The Stripper’ but delivered with such a compelling grasp of theology that it may well have prompted a religious conversion among a few fans with its enthusiastic words, much like Mark did for Cave himself.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away (Bad Seed album, 2013)

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 'Push The Sky Away' LP artwork

bad seed ltd | lp/cd/cd+dvd/box/dl bs001 | 18/02/2013

Push The Sky Away is the first Nick Cave material to emerge since he parted company with Mute in the wake of his terminated Grinderman project, and the first Bad Seeds album since 2008’s Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!. Now bereft of long-term arranger Mick Harvey, the Dirty Three multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis steps in and takes the role vacated by Harvey; since 2007 Ellis’ playing has filled the void left by Blixa Bargeld‘s guitar, he was Cave’s foil in Grinderman and the pair have realised several soundtracks together, showcasing a symbiotic relationship that has produced some of the best material in Cave’s back catalogue.

It’s precisely thirty years since the volatile young Nick Cave formed The Bad Seeds in Berlin following the demise of post-punk’s ravaged Birthday Party. Much has changed. Aside from a surprise reappearance of original Bad Seeds bassist Barry Adamson on two tracks here, not one of the original Bad Seeds line-up features in the group that bears the name today, but the core group of musicians that have been with Cave the longest remain in situ – Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos (percussion), Thomas Wydler (drums), Martyn P. Casey (bass) and Conway Savage (piano, organ). The fire and brimstone seems to have been exorcised effectively by two raucous Grinderman records and the Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! album in the middle, leaving Cave and co focussing more or less completely on the beautiful melancholia of the more serene moments of Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus.

Your reaction to Push The Sky Away will thus depend on whether what you want from Cave is howling, just on the edge of being out of control blues-informed punk, or the mature ideology that has coincided with the establishment’s embrace of Cave as one of the finest songwriters of the past thirty years. If the former is what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed, since Push The Sky Away generally has the slightly maudlin atmosphere that provided the mood on The Lyre Of Orpheus‘ closing track ‘O Children’; all of which is fine, but as anyone who’s listened to the Velvet Underground’s lovely third album for a while will tell you, sometimes you just want to hear ‘Waiting For The Man’. The closest Push The Sky Away gets to anything like the Cave of his earliest Bad Seeds work is on ‘Water’s Edge’ or ‘We Real Cool’, where the growling bass that dominates the low-end reminds listeners of the apocalyptic ‘Tupelo’ from The Firstborn Is Dead. The rest of the album is delicate balladry, with almost psychedelic arrangements (such as the ephemeral title track), quiet musings and bewildered observations on subjects ranging from mermaids to Wikipedia to teenagers cavorting carelessly on the beaches of Hove outside Cave’s window. In the press release, Cave describes Push The Sky Away thusly: ‘I don’t know, this record just seems new, you know, but new in an old school kind of way.’

That sense of the ‘new’ comes through in the remarkable palette of sounds deployed on the album, much of it purportedly derived from loops prepared by Ellis. With Mick Harvey gone and Cave seemingly unwilling to pick up a guitar after Grinderman, the album is largely devoid of any six-string action, with only the stand-out ‘Jubilee Street’ carrying anything close to a guitar line. Ellis shines through as effective lead musician, tracks filled-out with his loops, violin, mandolin and other assorted instruments. The rest of The Bad Seeds literally seem to play second fiddle to the dominance of Ellis, offering up loping basslines, intricate percussion and sprinkles of beautiful piano. Nevertheless, it’s reasonably clear – and not necessarily a bad thing – that Ellis is the primary mood-maker here. The upshot is some of the most advanced music that the Bad Seeds have ever realised, often bordering on a sort of synth music offshoot that no-one has named yet.

Cave’s singing has matured into a distinctive, varied and considered voice over time. The rough edges are all completely gone, leaving a honey-coated rasp that feels a long way from the guttural bleatings of the Cave of the past, hunched over a microphone in apparent pain, spitting words and sibilant sounds forth like a man possessed. The pretty ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ Cave – with Cave observing the funfare being dismantled and images of departure set to a backdrop of shoes being arranged carefully on a pebble beach – sees the beautiful pairing of Cave and Conway Savage reminding us of some of the most brittle moments of the Bad Seeds catalogue, wherein the tenderness long ago replaced the anger; on this and a number of other songs, Cave reminds me of Ed Harris’s character in The Hours, sat in his window watching the world go by, a resigned, tired air colouring proceedings.

The frontman reprises some of his humourous bluesy story-telling and diverse intonations on the obscure centrepiece, ‘Higgs Boson Blues’, namechecking everything from Hannah Montana / Miley Cyrus, Wikipedia, Robert Johnson, vague mythologies and Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider; that and ‘Jubilee Street’ are the clear highlights of the album, both being the most fully-formed and musically complete pieces here. The former has a skittish, absorbing jazz-blues dimension; the latter has a rousing, slowly-developing mix of lovely rolling drums, acoustic guitar, percussion, full orchestration and a muted intensity as Cave rises up into the sky toward the end in angelic contrast to the devilish way he flew forth in ‘Mutiny!’ back in the day. ‘Jubilee Street’ (which may or may not be set on the much-altered street in Brighton now devoid of any of its original charm) has a strong and compelling narrative, touching on the darker side of life with a bleak tale of what sounds like a prostitute who gets moved on from Jubilee Street by Russians.

The rest of the album is sonically clever and absorbing, even if Cave sounds like he might be sleepwalking through his songwriting at times. Nevertheless, he’s managed to produce some truly lovely songs as well as a new-found observational capacity in tracks like ‘Water’s Edge’, wherein the opposing forces of London girls looking for a good time and local boys looking for something to do clash; like Quadrophenia for vampires and party girls. There’s also moments where his particular brand of Viz-style smuttiness and wry humour shine through. Overall, it feels like Laura Ashley wallpaper – nice to look at, perfectly inoffensive and fine in the background, but you wouldn’t decorate your whole house with it.

Thanks to Rhian at Big Mouth.


I’m reposting this on the occasion of the Push The Sky Away receiving the prestigious Ivor Novello Album Award, an incredible achievement for both Nick Cave and his publisher Mute Song.

Cave has deserved greater recognition for his songwriting for far too long, and I’m delighted that the rest of the music world seems to have caught up with those of us who always knew where his songs would ultimately take him. I just wish that it had been another album that had secured him that recognition; a year on, I still haven’t warmed to this album, and I personally feel that there are far better works than this in the Cave back catalogue.

Track listing:

A1. / 1. We No Who U R
A2. / 2. Wide Lovely Eyes
A3. / 3. Water’s Edge
A4. / 4. Jubilee Street
A5. / 5. Mermaids
A6. / 6. We Real Cool
A7. / 7. Finishing Jubilee Street
A8. / 8. Higgs Boson Blues
A9. / 9. Push The Sky Away

C. Needle Boy
D. Lightning Bolts

First published 2013; edited 2014.