The predominantly sombre introspection of soundtrack work with Warren Ellis (collected last year on White Lunar), the cartoon mayhem of the second Grinderman album: ever-productive Nick Cave’s recent(ish) musical output has explored the extremes of his stylistic range but kept them strictly segregated.
Add to this the 55–year old songwriter’s by-now indisputable status as an elderly statesman of literary endowed rock, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit seen-it-all-before when faced with new “product”.
Experimental, ambitious and often profoundly strange, Push the Sky Away proves that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds aren’t ready to slip into by-the-numbers predictability just yet. The advance word has pitched this as a restrained album. As such, you might expect to encounter similar settings to the love-torn and blue balladry of 1997′s The Boatman’s Call or the stately calm of No More Shall We Part from 2001) but the fifteenth Bad Seeds album is far from a hushed offering.
Granted, the tempos are predominantly slow, and, in the absence of much guitar following long-time Bad Seed Mick Harvey‘s exit, there’s little here that’s easily filed under rock ‘n’ roll. Anyone expecting to encounter Nick Cave in his stereotypical fire & brimstone-bringing preacher-gone-wrong guise or many outbreaks of out-and-out noise catharsis is certainly in for a rough ride. On the other hand, although keyboards and Warren Ellis’ hugely expressive violin dominate, there’s scant evidence of conventional Bad Seeds ballads here either: Push the Sky Away has very little interest in resorting to comfortingly familiar mannerisms either in songwriting or delivery. Whilst admittedly slow-burning, it’s a tense, fractured, bristling listen that grows in stature and intensity with each listen, gradually becoming much, much more than the sum of its hugely impressive parts.
First single ‘We No Who U R’ gets the album started on a misleading – and very beautiful – spot of bona fide balladry. Listen closer, though, and it’s the subtle colourings – scratchy violin loops, a wailing flute, Cave’s unsettlingly calm delivery of a lyric that drips with cryptic menace – that set the tone for what follows. ‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ has the music follow half a step behind the vocal melody to unsettling effect. The hypnotic, simultaneously mournful and barbed ‘Jubilee Street’ and the colossal time- and place-shifting centrepiece ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ unfurl unhurriedly, evolving from scratchily minimalistic beginnings to swirling crescendos that straddle the massed power of economically administered strings and a choir. Set to a rumbling bass line that churns back and forth relentlessly like the waves on a stormy sea, ‘Water’s Edge’ – the narrator’s observations of youthful courting rituals on a beach interrupted by blunt reminders of the passage of time and the darker side of love – is even more potent: the unexpected arrival of the string-soaked, swirling coda counts amongst the band’s most powerful moments.
The unease and mystery that permeates most of the album makes the unadorned beauty of ‘Mermaids’ – built around what could be the Bad Seeds’ most expansive chorus to date – sound even more heart-wrenchingly poignant. However, even when the music sounds comfortingly familiar, Cave manages to defy expectations by locating fresh angles to his everlasting thematic trilogy of love/sex, violence and religion. “Some say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll/But it touches you right to the soul” (trite, but dripping with gravitas here), declares Cave during the title track. The simple, hymn-like melody of ’Push The Sky Away’ seems destined for bombast, only for Cave and co. to let it fade gracefully amidst an eerie ocean of static.
Experimental yet built on superb songwriting, fresh and surprising but still somehow recognisably a Bad Seeds record, the amount of innovation and inspiration found on Push The Sky Away proves that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds must still care an awful lot about this rock ‘n’ roll stuff.