This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Bad Seeds. The arrival of Push the Sky Away, however, falls close to another: the tenth anniversary of 2003s Nocturama, widely greeted as the groups weakest or at least most disjointed studio effort yet. To many critics, still reeling from the all-consuming balladry of 2001s No More Shall We Part, the record was proof positive that the King of Noir had lost his edge. In Allmusic, Tim Sendras verdict was especially unflinching: It is truly sad when artists with great vision and imagination, whose work is filled with power and beauty, just kind of lose it all at once.
Jokes on us, I guess, because reports of Nick Caves creative death have been greatly exaggerated. With Grinderman and its Bad Seeds counterpart, 2008s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Cave relit the fire in his loins for brash garage-rock numbers like No Pussy Blues and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! With Push the Sky Away, he leaves that era behind and rushes into the unknown for an astounding work of sparse, trembling noir-rock.
The lesson here is that Grinderman regained a sense of urgency that can be expressed well beyond their coarse, primal vocabulary. Richly arranged, masterfully sequenced, and full of brooding, Push the Sky Away combines the stately beauty of The Boatmans Call and No More Shall We Part with the intensity of Grinderman/Lazarus-era Cave while managing to sound like neither. For that matter, it sounds unlike anything the Bad Seeds have done before. Like Leonard Cohens Im Your Man (a favorite of Caves), its an unexpected late-period masterpiece, full of self-reflexive humor and jarringly modern lyricism and musicality.
The albums lush dynamics likely stem from the 2009 departure of Mick Harvey, Caves guitarist and collaborator of over 30 years. With the absence of a prominent lead guitar, the arrangements emphasize small ensembles of bass, strings, bare guitar plucking, and especially Warren Ellis minimalist loops, described by Cave as its tiny, trembling heartbeat. Some highlights are entirely guitar-less. The disarming opener We No Who U R grooves steadily on synth layerings, flute scales, and what may be the Bad Seeds first use of a drum machine.
Even Caves piano takes a backseat on the album, leaving plenty of open space in the mix. Odd organ drones and female voices add texture, rounding out the singers most soulful vocal performance since perhaps The Boatmans Call.
The songs assemble themselves from deceptively simple openings on Mermaids, a lone, gurgling guitar; on We Real Cool, a single-note bass rumble — that evolve into rich climaxes full of string and keyboard flourishes. Mermaids blossoms into a gorgeous, flowing chorus to match its title; on the similarly themed Waters Edge, a chaotic jumble of grinding bass, breathless tales of city girls (their legs wide to the world like bibles open), and a relentless violin riff, its a sudden moment of respite: Its the will of love / Its the thrill of love / Ah, but the chill of love is coming on, Cave warns, violins swelling anxiously around him.
The beauty and restraint on the album is coupled with an intensity that hearkens back to Let Love In or Tender Prey. The patient Jubilee Street, a tribute to a murdered prostitute, has a stuttering tempo as Caves voice becomes more and more wrecked with urgency. By the final minute, the crescendo of slicing guitar and majestic strings fade into swells into oblivion.
For an artist whose thematic muses tend toward the biblical past, Cave stakes ground in contemporary territory here, name-checking Wikipedia and Miley Cyrus with equal fervor. The songs reportedly arose from Googling curiosities [and] being entranced by exotic Wikipedia entries, with a focus on how on the internet profoundly significant events, momentary fads and mystically-tinged absurdities sit side-by-side. These digital fixations arise on We No Who U R, with its Ke$ha-inspired title and lyrics that hint at privacy invasion in the virtual sphere, and We Real Cool, which finds Cave muttering, Wikipedia is heaven / When you don’t want to remember anymore. Then theres Finishing Jubilee Street, an eerie, spoken-word account of a dream involving a child bride. Cave begins by announcing hed just finished writing Jubilee Street, a meta trick that calls to mind the recursive nature of Internet culture.
Then comes Higgs Boson Blues, a hallucinatory journey to Geneva that combines the weary blues of Neil Youngs On The Beach with one of Caves most sleazy drawls this side of Watching Alice (Aaaah Ive been sitting in my basement pati-oh / Aaaaaye, it was hot!). Over a steadily rising chorus of Ooohs, the tale grows increasingly demented and deliriously Seussian (cleaning ladies sob into their mops and a bellhop hops and bops), weaving visions of Robert Johnson, Hannah Montana, and sixteenth-century colonialism together in its stunning dénouement.
Maybe its a harrowing account of obsession and insanity in the information age, or maybe its just Cave having a laugh. These momentary fads and mystically-tinged absurdities — they are sometimes one and the same.
Essential Tracks: “Higgs Bosom Blues”, “Jubilee Street”, and “We Real Cool”
Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard: