From the anarchic punk of The Birthday Party to the brooding frontman of the Bad Seeds to a composer of moody film scores with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis, Nick Cave has worn many hats over the course of his four-decade career. What has remained constant throughout all that time is a certain morbid swagger, an infatuation with sex, death, and sexy death that — over the course of two records from Cave’s Grinderman project and the Bad Seeds’ 2008 album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! — revealed its most primal, raucous expression as recent years saw Cave dragging himself kicking and screaming into middle age. If Grinderman & Lazarus represented a bender of drugs, sex, and booze, then Push the Sky Away, the Seeds’ latest effort, is the hazy, regretful hangover that inevitably follows.
The record is the first Bad Seeds album to be assembled without input from a single non-original member, though Ellis remains on board and former Seed Barry Anderson rejoined Cave’s band post-recording. Perhaps as a consequence, Cave sounds lonely and forlorn, a sense reinforced by the album’s striking cover art, which suggests an abandonment of youth, beauty, and love.
The title of opener “We No Who U R” seems to reinforce that reading with its Ke$ha-aping approach to the written word. The song itself serves as an appropriate opening to the record, somber yet pulsing with a subtle beauty. In all their various incarnations, the Bad Seeds have excelled at twisting traditional rock instrumentation into a soundscape all their own. Cave appears to be invoking a form of ritual as he intones, “The trees all stand like pleading hands / We go down with the dew in the morning light.”
Wheseas much of the album adopts a mournful tone reminiscent of acts like The National, “Water’s Edge” is classic creepy, pervy Cave, a sordid tale of the young and beautiful that trembles with the anticipation of something terrible about to erupt at any moment. Single “Jubilee Street” likewise proves that Cave has lost none of his flair for capturing the seedy side of life even when his words are wrapped in an arrangement that ranks as one of his smoothest.
Both “Mermaids” & “Higgs Boson Blues” contain some frankly alarming couplets — the latter tosses figures such as Robert Johnson and Miley Cyrus into a session of deranged mad-libs — but “We Real Cool” is a standout cut, a slow burn whose smoldering intensity is such that it more than earns the use of such a clichéd term. “Finishing Jubliee Street,” meanwhile, sees Cave writing himself into the record in a Stephen King-esque twist of metafiction and boasts a chorus whose sing-songy female delivery is as reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens as it is of anything in Cave’s back catalogue.
And as the titular closing track’s quietly melodramatic synths bring the album to an appropriately somber crescendo, the real world fades back into view. Nick Cave’s sordid little universe would be a terrible place to live, but it remains an engrossing place to visit.
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