OVER the long term, Nick Cave is probably the most consistently brilliant songwriter we have, so much so that excellence is pretty much a given each time he releases new music.
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So I guess we all know what to expect from his 15th album with the trusty Bad Seeds, right?
But even though it’s here now, I really didn’t see Push The Sky Away coming. It’s customary for artists as imaginative and assiduous as Cave to set themselves new challenges, to react to and against their own work. His fans may be content but Cave is restless. He has had his fun in the incorrigible Grinderman and on the previous Bad Seeds album Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! and, while it provides enormous entertainment value for the listener, he needs a break from all that priapic roistering, so those mighty Bad Seed cylinders go unfired on Push The Sky Away.
But, despite the slow, even sombre pace of the album, this is not Cave in his typical alternative guise as primo love balladeer either. Push The Sky Away has little of the devastating confessional depth of The Boatman’s Call, still his finest collection of love songs, and more of the dark storytelling vein which was threaded through No More Shall We Part and Nocturama. But it is entirely its own prowling beast, big on atmosphere, not so big on tunes, deft in its poetry but also liberally dipped in overt black humour.
Environmental lamentation We No Who U R is Nick Cave’s version of Earth Song which, naturally, sounds nothing like Earth Song. Rather than the disaster movie of the Michael Jackson video, Cave gives us something closer to the scarred landscapes of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake album. The backing is spare, resting on the sonorous snare sound of a drum machine and chiming keyboards, eventually embellished by a stately, soothing siren chorus. Cave has started as he means to go on.
He has been settled in Brighton for years now but this is the first time it appears as a character in his songs. Push The Sky Away is awash with seaside imagery. The wordplay, such as the double meaning of “waves” or interior rhyme of “your dress sides with your wide lovely strides”, begins in earnest on Wide Lovely Eyes, an impressionistic valediction set in the coastal town they forgot to shut down.
Water’s Edge observes the modern courtship game on the seafront, with Brighton boys painted as aquatic predators and London girls as knowing sirens with “legs wide to the world, like bibles open”. Cave is in creepy preacher mode issuing a cold warning, while Warren Ellis’s baleful, eastern-influenced violin and Jim Sclavunos’s menacing jazz rolls provide the foreboding backing to match this unsettling scene.
Jubilee Street evokes a whole world with a tight turn of phrase but melodically and atmospherically it’s not among Cave’s most engaging. However, this anatomy of a relationship with a prostitute may have haunted its writer sufficiently to invade his subconscious life, as he goes on to describe a sexual anxiety dream about a young bride on the eerie Finishing Jubilee Street. Or, y’know, maybe he just made the whole thing up. He’s good at that.
Mermaids hits the spot melodically, and lyrically it’s an audacious ride, contrasting the ebb and flow of the longing refrain with witty, colloquial nuggets such as “I do husband alertness course”. Cave is on such irreverent form throughout, casting a line like “Wikipedia’s heaven when you don’t want to remember” into the brooding rumble of We Real Cool with its otherwise romantic talk of planets and heartbeats.
The pinnacle of this mix-and-match approach to tone comes a couple of songs later on Higgs Boson Blues, a stealthy eight-minute banquet of beat poetry and word association which leads off with the discovery of the ‘God particle’ in Geneva – allowing a writer who has consistently pondered man’s place in the universe to explore science and religion in one fell swoop – before taking in the Devil and Robert Johnson at the crossroads, the assassination of Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and Hannah Montana going tribal. Personally, he had me at the title – the rest is a bonus.
Higgs Boson Blues is as much swagger as this album has to give. Push The Sky Away ends where it began, in downbeat, reflective mood with the funereal synthesizer and solemn philosophy of the title track, and a whole lot for Cave fans to ponder, not least that a musician with such a distinctive aesthetic can still surprise 35 years into his career.
• Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Push The Sky. Bad Seed Ltd, £12.99