There are very few artists who embody their work in the way of Nick Cave, who throughout his discography of morbid post-punk has affirmed himself as an avatar of aggressively literate sensuality. Whether working with Grinderman, The Birthday Party, or the Bad Seeds, Cave has built a sense of depth and character into his 35-year output that puts the pretensions of most musicians to shame. With every album, soundtrack, or film on which he works, Cave layers and decorates his persona as a tempest of artistic depravity.
With Push the Sky Away, the latest album that he’s released with the Bad Seeds (and their first since 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!), Cave continues to cement himself in the pantheon of alternative rock (a term that will always be too superficial to describe what Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have accomplished), in a manner much different than on any previous album. Push the Sky Away, which continues the dark legacy of Cave’s music, manages to sustain the ferocity of all of his previous releases while also smoothing out the edges of the band’s sound.
Each track is intricate and expansive, evolving with each listen and infested with a complex instrumentation that intertwines perfectly with Cave’s morbid eloquence and sinful charm. Whether it’s the snarling chant of “Water’s Edge” or the fluid remembrance of “Jubilee Street,” every cut on Push the Sky Away suggests a fascinating medley of emotions, presenting Cave’s concerns both viscerally and superficially with equal aplomb.
On the former, Cave reminds listeners of his keen ability to simultaneously poeticize and abase his subjects, as he moves from coo to howl, singing “They would come in their hordes, these city girls/With white strings flowing from their ears/As the local boys behind the mound/Think long and hard about the girls from the capital/Who dance at the water’s edge shaking their asses.”
Phrase by phrase, Cave vibrates between lyrical reverence and prosaic hunger, painstakingly composing the intellectual hedonism of which he is high priest.
This balance, so definitive of Cave’s music, extends throughout the album, moving from the dirty old man playfulness of “Mermaids” (“She was a catch/We were a match/I was the match that would fire up her snatch”) to the somber, unforgiving intonations of “We No Who U R” (“The tree don’t care what the little bird sings/We go down with the dew in the morning light”). As such, Push the Sky Away is almost a primer for the Bad Seeds’ musical persona and a manual for the exploration of their lead singer’s delightfully tortured psyche.
All the same, it’s a wholly unique album in its style and approach. In many ways, Push the Sky Away h arkens back to a southern musical tradition, incorporating the neat darkness of artists such as John Lee Hooker. Just as Cave touched on notions of Gothic Dixie folk on the Bad Seeds records Murder Ballads and Kicking Against the Pricks (“Muddy Water,” anyone?), here again he conjures the swampy thematic darkness of those musical traditions. On “Jubilee Street,” he gently muses about lost love and personal anxiety, shrouding his lyrics in a detail-devoid opaqueness that elevates the disconnected snippets of remorse that wade through the track’s heavy lines of strings. “I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain/And a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain,” he mourns, punching the consonants with a restrained violence that flows beautifully into the song’s wayward drone.
Not since The Boatman’s Call (which dealt exclusively with the end of Cave’s relationship with PJ Harvey), has Cave so beautifully captured a sense of loss, and Push the Sky Away, with its coupled tracks and swirling instrumentations, is a profoundly troubled record. The music, while at times reaching a furious pitch, spends most of its time in a carefully organized muddle, wonderfully underscoring a fractured sense of self.
Maybe it’s the distillation of some sort of midlife crisis or of another personal loss, but the restrained bitterness and shoe-shuffling depression that permeate Push the Sky Away manage to both embody and redefine the Bad Seeds. God of his own breed of Gothic eroticism, Cave refines and indulges each of his musical tendencies on the record, skillfully reminding fans of what makes his music and personality so magnetic. It’s hard to imagine a better album coming out this year, given the masterpiece that Push the Sky Away is. And while it’s exceedingly difficult to choose a “best” Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away is certainly a worthy contender.