Nearly four decades in the spotlight, Nick Cave has forged a career as a musician, composer, screenwriter, actor and author. Undeniably however, it is with The Bad Seeds that he has enjoyed the most success. Chameleonic, they’ve managed to reinvent themselves countless times, forever heading in new directions. Now returning for their 15th studio album, it’s clear they aren’t content to rest just yet.
A big departure from the raw guitar-driven sound of 2008’s Dig Lazarus Dig!!! and both of garage-rock side-project Grinderman’s LPs, Push The Sky Away finds the group in a more reflective mood. Rarely straying above midtempo, minimal compositions built on repetition and slowly building orchestration form an engaging base for Cave’s powerful, emotional vocal delivery. Begrudgingly likening albums to children, the frontman has called this record ‘the ghost-baby in the incubator and Warren’s loops are its tiny, trembling heartbeat.’
Here he refers to the work of Warren Ellis – lead Bad Seed and Cave’s collaborator on his recent film scores for The Road and Lawless. Every track is built around one of these repeated musical ideas; with a multitude of intricate parts drifting in and out, swelling and falling away. Never stealing focus but supporting the vocals perfectly.
Lyrically, Cave’s staple themes of sex, religion and spirituality pervade the whole album; skilfully interwoven with pop-culture references that would seem out of place if they were sung by anyone else. The words alone are impressive enough, but when coupled with an exceptional vocal performance really make an impact. Take for instance ‘Water’s Edge’ – a chugging, gritty bassline, an unsettling distant violin riff and sporadic drums combine to give a dark and unsettling feel. Against this backing Cave assumes the air of a menacing and damning preacher, “Their legs wide to the world like Bibles open / To be speared and taking apart their bodies like toys”. Then as the verse draws to a close the ominous music is overtaken by a sweeping string section as the storm clouds clear and the chorus hits.
Another highlight is the album opener and lead single, ‘We No Who U R’ – a passionate hymnal number full of lush harmonies and atmospheric synth lines all tied together with an organ loop that echoes into the ether. Undoubtedly however, the stand out track is the 8 minute epic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’; with Cave winding together poetry that name-checks both Hannah Montana and legendary bluesman Robert Johnson – all delivered with immense passion and a gravelly delivery worthy of Tom Waits.
Push The Sky Away is a masterclass in songwriting and the strength of the album is in its subtlety. At a glance, it could easily be disregarded as a mopey record from an ageing rocker; but that’d be a great injustice. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds are truly at a peak here and this latest effort, combined with a recently announced headline performance at this year’s Coachella, once again cements their place within the contemporary music scene.
By Karl Bos