After 30 years and 15 albums, you could expect an artist to return to familiar topics. With Push the Sky Away, though, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (even missing Mick Harvey) don’t so much repeat themselves as they concentrate what makes them so essential into one tight album. Along with a special lyrical acuity comes some of the most textured music they’ve yet produced, making this latest album one of the strongest in the band’s discography.
The album’s opener and lead single “We No Who U R” displays the album’s complexity. The band sounds beautiful, and there’s a hint of maturity in the idea that “there’s no need to forgive,” yet the whole track turns out to be a threat. Other songs are at least as menacing. “Water’s Edge” rests on nimble wordplay and a dark eroticism (a sharp contrast with the exaggerated lust on, say, the Grinderman albums), but it becomes increasingly morbid and violent. Restlessness gives way to an attack, and the philosophical considerations of where speech comes from become an emergency as shrieks fail to form into language and both the “thrill” and “chill” of love combine in an unnerving event.
Despite tracks like these, Push the Sky Away isn’t an entirely bleak album. “Mermaids” offers an broad-sweeping look at faith. The title track offers a strange sort of resistance, making an ambiguous statement that seems to push into the dark as much as into hope, but it keeps moving in its meditation. “We Real Cool” gets to the most assertive side of this line of thinking. Cave ponders the idea of something bigger than our reality, pitting the concept of either the transcendent or simply the enormous (such as the distance between stars, a science reference less playful than writing “Higgs Boson Blues”) against our ability to think of ourselves as “cool.”
All these thoughts and emotions play out against a coherent but fluctuating sound that develops atmosphere without relying on riffs or even standard sounds. The album sounds cinematic, but it’s hard to imagine the movie that would fit it (Cowboys vs. Aliens, but as a dark existential journey?) The Bad Seeds simultaneously bare their teeth and reveal their tenderness, growling while turning down the sheets for you.
At the center of this swirl lies “Jubilee Street,” a narrative track reflecting on hypocrisy and moral ambiguity. We go through hardship and emotional drain, but just as the track drags us into somewhere dark and inescapable, Cave, buoyed by the music, finds himself caught in a transformation into something “glowing” and “flying,” as if Nelson Algren morphed into Flannery O’Connor. The music brightens and spiral inverts, pointing up to something more.
But, of course, it’s not that simple. “Jubilee Street” has an epilogue, “Finishing Jubilee Street.” This track tells an enigmatic story of a dream of a missing bride, complete with mystic lightning, gothic sexuality, and an ambiguous chorus about “coming on down.” The transcendence of the initial track is undercut here, but all by a dream that we maybe shouldn’t take seriously at all. That sort of play and interplay, guided by wit and sharpness, drives Push the Sky Away. The album surprises continually, offering humor, crises and redemption within the sound of something as lovely and enticing as it is aggressive and challenging.