Nick Cave’s apparent inability to stop making music has now been our gain for four decades. After spending much of the last seven years with Grinderman, Cave has reconvened with the Bad Seeds for their fifteenth record. Their last outing, 2008’s Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!, saw them sharpening their edge after a series of mellower releases. On Push the Sky Away, Cave & co. cleanse their palettes and nail a sound that suggests they are coming to terms with their status as the elder statesmen of rock.
A soft-spoken record with a sharp focus but no real itinerary, Push the Sky Away’s nine songs are dim and distilled, antithetical to the snarl that Cave honed with Grinderman. It’s as if he deliberately placed these songs on the shelf for a year so that they could collect a layer of dust. His internal monologue is somehow redemptive, but more fragmented than usual, uniting his traditional themes of religion, sex, love, violence, sex, and mortality with the shock of the new. Case in point: The smoky “Higgs Boson Blues,” which combines classic Cave (“Hear a man preaching in a language that’s completely new”) with non sequiturs like “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah.” It’s rare for Cave’s attempts to infuse modernity into his lyrics to be this clunky, but the pop culture references almost end up being worth it for the double takes they prompt.
Much like his band, Cave’s weathered voice musters power slowly and steadily. Even when he is referencing Ms. Montana or Wikipedia, the weight he puts behind his words summon an atmosphere so blackened that it belies the content. He sounds more like a grizzled, dirty-minded old man than ever before, which lends itself neatly to the record’s themes.
These smaller pleasures aside, Push the Sky Away skillfully utilizes delicate contrasts to build tension, all of which leads to two great moments of release. The first is the sublime “Jubilee Street.” Cave tells the story of a prostitute who becomes pregnant (“A ten ton catastrophe on a sixty pound chain”) as a wiry guitar line bobs and weaves through ashen percussion and Warren Ellis’ delicate veil of strings. The second release comes on the title track, which closes the album out. It’s built around an unshakeably haunting organ tone, and as Cave repeats “Keep on pushing,” it’s obvious that journey was worth the struggle.
A few songs revisit styles that Cave and the Bad Seeds have had success with in the past. “Water’s Edge” is rattled off in semi-spoken word in the vein of “The Mercy Seat,” and “We No Who U R” plays like a more solemn rendition of “Abbatoir Blues.” The occasional flashback notwithstanding, Push the Sky Away is as wonderfully subdued as anything they’ve ever done, and there’s currently no group that can wring more value from their age and experience. A lot of bands will scream at you to get their point across. Push the Sky Away has the ability to move without raising its voice above a whisper.