The grand lord of gothic lushness is 55 and still in his prime on this majestic and desolate masterpiece
As frontman of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and through incarnations as actor, screenwriter and author, Nick Cave has spent the last 30 years carving a reputation as rock’s great polymath. His great vocal screeds, steeped in literature and religion, make hell on Earth sound as exhilarating as an acid trip at the funfair, with some beautifully desolate ballads about love, loss and heartbreak chucked in as a bonus.
What’s remarkable is that, after 30 years, a new wind blows through ‘Push The Sky Away’. Like the impatient sea air of Cave’s Brighton home, there’s a sense of change that gusts through the band’s 15th studio album, as it ventures into natural catastrophe (‘We No Who U R’), scientific discovery (‘Higgs Boson Blues’) and ravaging tides (‘Water’s Edge’).
It’s their first album since multi-instrumentalist and Cave’s longest collaborator Mick Harvey left. That, perhaps, is why violinist Warren Ellis takes an even more pivotal role – which feels more in key with Cave and Ellis’ magnificently bleak soundtrack to John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, than the cock-swaggering garage rock of Grinderman and 2008’s ‘Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!’. Recent interviews suggest Cave was tiring of the swampy blues of ‘…Lazarus…’ – “You play a song, and everyone’s grabbing a fuckin’ maraca, y’know?” he said. So it’s no surprise its follow-up is starker, steeped in cinematic strings (‘Jubilee Street’), lush harmonies (‘We No Who U R’), and futuristic clatter from unidentifiable instruments.
‘Wide Lovely Eyes’ is as heart-swelling as any of Cave’s greatest love songs, but like much on the album there’s a sense of agitation to its terse guitar throbs and space-age warbles. Factory clangs add a suspenseful feel to ‘We No Who U R’ (text-speak from one of rock’s greatest lyricists?) as Cave sings post-apocalyptically of charred trees stood like “pleading hands”. He hasn’t, it’s clear, lost touch with the mythical (“I believe in God, I believe in mermaids too”), nor the religious (girls stand with “legs wide to the world like bibles open”). But there’s a sense that the characters on ‘Push The Sky Away’ are closer in time and space: take the boys on Brighton beach, trying to get the attention of city girls with “white strings floating from their ears”, and the lyrical cameo from Disney’s Hannah Montana in the darkly comic ‘Higgs Boson Blues’.
What Cave and co have managed here is no mean feat: a masterpiece that merges the experimentation and freedom of their side projects with Cave’s most tender songcraft. “Some people say it’s just rock’n’roll”, he concludes, with a sentimentality that’s almost syrupy, on ‘Push The Sky Away’, “but it gets you right down to your soul”. Amen.