The steel-blue lyrical assassin Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds band are back, in the way some people prefer them.
Where the Australians’ previous album Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was grungy with guitars and garage-rock get-up-and-go, Push the Sky Away is minimalist in comparison. This here 15th LP (out Feb. 19 in a variety of formats) is coolly ominous, slightly fevered and always on the verge of breakout – a “10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain,” as Cave himself puts it. Fans of the piano-based Boatman’s Call from 1997 might dig it. Lovers of the brooders Leonard Cohen and the National may as well, but if someone says Cave is incomparable, no one needs to fight him too hard on that.
“I am alone now. I am beyond recrimination. Curtains are shut. Furniture has gone. I am transforming. I am vibrating. I am an embryo eating dark oxygen. I am glowing. I am flying. Look at me now.”
That is Cave’s vivid self-assessment, and the kind of answer you might get if you ask him how it’s going. Or maybe it’s something Howard Hughes once said. The passage is from Jubilee Street, a vamped drone lit by kerosene lamp. It cinematically widens as it goes, carried by strings and the voices of French children’s choir. The song concerns a woman Cave fears. Her name is Bee, and she really must be something.
Two songs later comes Finishing Jubilee Street, a hazy, head-nodding monologue informed by a dream Cave had upon completion of Jubilee Street. Now, Push the Sky Away is not a concept album, but is a Nick Cave album, which is concept enough for most of us. Nine tracks stream lowly, equal parts beauty and soft menace. It’s one of those records that doesn’t really need the seconds between the tracks – those tiny, useless interruptions.
A bass guitar rags underneath We Real Cool, a sermon from the gothic crooner: “Who measured the distance between the planets, right down to your big, blue, spinning world?” The question is rhetorical, posed to non-believers by the same man who previously wrote and sang, “Your knowledge is impressive/And your argument is good/ But I am the resurrection, babe/And you’re standing on my foot.”
You want blues? Cave has blues – ragged, weird Higgs Boson Blues. It’s the blues Jim Morrison lived all his life to sing, but it never happened. It’s about the devil and Robert Johnson, it’s about Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana – it’s about the deals we make.
With its glowing organ and slow pace, the title (and final) cut is musically congruous with the preceding material. But the message is a surprise: perseverance in the face of resistance, to keep on pushing the darkest ideas away. The kicker is that while some people say that it’s “just rock ’n’ roll,” Cave knows that the music can be salvation. Amen to that, brother, amen to that.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds play Montreal’s Metropolis, March 22; Toronto’s Massey Hall, March 23; and Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, April 6.
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