Push the Sky Away is a triumphant return. Nick Cave’s 15th album with the Bad Seeds eschews the noise rock of his recent Grinderman project, instead offering a stately and gothic mutation of the blues, not an ounce of fat to be found hanging from the lean, creeping melodies. Cave’s themes are familiar: obsession, violence, sex, the might of nature, madness, and, naturally, death. He has likewise visited the imagery before- tumultuous seas, trees burnt withered, small town windows with curtains twitching, young girls with night black hair; so far so goth.
The genius on Push the Sky Away comes from Cave’s refusal to let his lyrics rest in the past. Although musically the Bad Seeds skeletal set up of guitar, fiddle, flute, piano and drum occasionally harken back to a more sinister, lamp lit era, the songs abound with contemporary references. Rather than jarring, these nods to the 21st Century serve to cast shadows over our brightly lit modern world. Higgs Bosun Blues flies through a surreal chain of internet babble, like a series of web links clicked and clicked, taking in references to Miley Cyrus, the CERN lab, missionaries bearing smallpox and Robert Johnson bargaining with Satan. In light of Cave telling journalists that Push the Sky Away was born of “Googling curiosities”, it plays like a thrilling late night session at the laptop, with weird Uncle Nick jabbing at the mousepad.
Elsewhere, whilst it seems hard to make an iPod mysterious, Cave pulls it off, growling in Waters Edge
“They come in their hordes these city girls// with white strings flowing from their ears.”
The setting for that song is the Brighton seafront Cave watches from his family home, a place of tongue tied country boys and fading grandeur, both proving particularly apt colour for a Bad Seeds record. Wide Lovely Eyes notes that, “They’ve dismantled the fun fair and they’ve shut down the rides// And they’ve hung the mermaids from the street lights by their hair” – and in a couple of deft, poetic lines the city has been rendered a mausoleum, lonely and cruel.
It’s not all shadow. On Finishing Jubilee Street, the title referring to Jubilee Street (itself the album’s finest moment, an escalating story of a small town prostitute, narrated by a typically demonic former customer), Cave plays with his own persona, telling of waking up after finishing writing Jubilee Street, having dreamt of being married to a young girl. He paints himself as aging crackpot, half crazed with lust, the frilly shirted vampiric goth of public imagination. Either he’s taking the piss or he’s finally gone nuts, either way it makes for great listening.
It’s rare that a band this deep in their career can make an album that sounds fresh, contemporary, and unique, but the Bad Seeds have done it. Much has been made of the departure of long term collaborator Mick Harvey but on the evidence on show his absence has let in some needed space. Push the Sky Away doesn’t try to hard – it doesn’t need to. Its languorous, menacing grooves, its unity of musical and lyrical vision, its atmosphere of unhurried threat, they all speak of a group who know exactly what they’re doing, with exactly fuck all to prove. 8/10