Even when he was a fresh-faced punk, Nick Cave never sounded like a fresh-faced punk. Back on those Birthday Party records, he sounded like a wizened, apocalyptic rage-prophet. And over the course of god knows how many albums since then, he’s only grown into that voice. Cave’s records might not have the same world-blasted intensity that they once did, but he’s one of our most reliable sources of dark and bloody-minded religious-death imagery. It’s easy to say that Cave’s two albums with the cantankerous noise-garage side project Grinderman brought him back to the hate-stare evilness that had once animated him. But if you take a long, hard look at Cave’s discography, it’s shockingly low on weak points. His intensity may have waxed and waned over the years, but the fundamental power of his music has been surprisingly steady for decades now. And so Push The Sky Away, Cave’s new one with the Bad Seeds, is merely one more very good album in a long, long string of them.
The last Bad Seeds album, 2008′s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, was more or less Grinderman 1.5, an extension of that band’s depraved old-man frenzy. So Push The Sky Away is the first Cave album since the Lyre Of Orpheus half of the 2004 Bad Seeds double album that’s moved Cave back to a sort of beauty-embracing folk-blues controlled burn — a sound that, at times, comes across almost respectable. That hasn’t always worked out for Cave; albums like 2001′s No More Shall We Part, low on blood and thunder, are among his least interesting (though even those are still pretty good). But that first Grinderman album did change things to an extent, or maybe it marked a change in Cave. It showed a Cave with a new obsession: His own advancing age and, by extension, his perceived inability to hook up with hordes of young women whenever he wanted. The Cave of those two Grinderman albums was an angry old lech, one who seemed to think the universe was playing a cruel trick on him. And that extends to Push The Sky Away, a powerful album-length evocation of what it’s like to be a depressed (but also angry) old lech.
That persona, on its own, isn’t particularly interesting. A depressed (and also angry) old lech was the character at the center of Cave’s godawful 2009 novel The Death Of Bunny Munro, one of my least pleasurable reading experiences in recent years. And on the page, Cave’s Push The Sky Away lyrics can be a bit much: Images of women far away, across bodies of water, far away like distant galaxies, mermaids waving from banks. “Water’s Edge” seems to be a weird societal fable about girls’ asses inspiring men to become hateful inhuman fighting machines, and you could probably make an argument that old man Cave does as much to lyrically dehumanize women as, say, Rick Ross. But Cave’s voice is a hell of an instrument, a craggy and scarily-assured burr that savors its sibilants and takes on Southern-preacher emphasis-levels at will. That voice is so willfully skeezy and malevolently alien that I can’t help but hear Cave’s on-record persona as one more character in Cave’s self-created universe of bad faith and weaponized longing. Most of the album blurs together into a sinister goth-blues throb, and it’s so snarly and evocative that I feel like I’m in a rain-slick cum-smelling back alleyway even when it’s just my office on a sunny morning.
But a few songs from the album veer away from that evilness toward real beauty, lending cracks of vulnerability to Cave’s whole persona. This is the first Bad Seeds album that Cave has made since longtime consigliere Mick Harvey left the band, and Cave’s swamp-monster-looking Grinderman co-conspirator Warren Ellis has now stepped up as his right-hand man. Cave and Ellis have already made a lot of (pretty great) film music together, and Cave credits Ellis’s loops as the main musical influence on Push The Sky Away. Those loops, when they get enough room, make for some powerfully heavy atmosphere, and sometimes they whack you with absolute prettiness out of nowhere. “Wide Lovely Eyes” is Cave’s version of an introspective street-corner doo-wop lament, and it’s easily my favorite song here. “Finishing Jubilee Street” — a song that, in a rare meta touch, has Cave singing about writing “Jubilee Street,” an entirely different song, before describing a nightmare — starts with spare menace before adding in some shivery backup vocals that push the song to another level. And the album-closing title track is expertly-executed minimal goth, a low-key goosebumps-up pulse that doesn’t need drums or guitar-fuzz to keep its grip on your throat. Nick Cave is 57 now, and he seems likely to keep writing songs this stickily seductive for another couple of decades. We’re very lucky to have him.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Iceage’s jittery, atonal, Wire-damaged punker You’re Nothing.
• Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Dawn McCarthy’s gorgeous Everly Brothers tribute What The Brothers Sang.
• Beach Fossils’ hazy jangle-rock sophomore effort Clash The Truth.
• Mark Kozelek’s spare, haunted, fascinatingly curated covers collection Like Rats.
• Jamie Lidell’s self-titled sputtering electro-soul album.
• Matmos’s glitchy and guest-heavy The Marriage Of True Minds.
• Former Parts & Labor frontman Dan Friel’s solo debut Total Folklore.
• Inc.’s atmospheric indie-R&B debut No World.
• Eat Skull’s rickety and unstable III.
• The all-star double-disc pirate-song compilation Son Of Rogues Gallery.
• Black Boned Angel’s drone odyssey The End.