x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away is all trial and error

A lot of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' new album, Push The Sky Away, feels more like party tricks than serious songs.

The Australian singer Nick Cave of the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Push the Sky Away is the band's 15th album. Nigel Treblin / AFP
The Australian singer Nick Cave of the band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Push the Sky Away is the band's 15th album. Nigel Treblin / AFP

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Push the Sky Away
Bad Seed Ltd
***

After three decades together, Bad Seeds, rock's poet laureate of savage desire and tormented romance, enter a new experimental phase with their 15th album. Methodically shunning the singer Nick Cave's default discomfort zone of gothic melodrama and doomy orchestration, Push the Sky Away is a mostly mellow affair that glides along on spare arrangements, skeletal rhythms, ghostly voices and ambient drones. This is a commendably bold sideways step, if not wholly successful, sounding unfocused and underpowered at times.

The first Bad Seeds album not to feature Cave's long-time musical sideman Mick Harvey is also the first since the 55-year-old Australian crooner shelved his breakaway garage-rock project Grinderman. But the latter group's freewheeling ethos - irreverent, collaborative and improvisational - has clearly spilt over into the looser, more groove-driven songwriting here. There are also echoes of early Velvet Underground and latter-day Leonard Cohen, especially on Wide Lovely Eyes and Mermaids, whose soft, electronic textures and dreamy half-whispered vocals conceal queasy musings on lust, death and sinister events at funfairs.

The most traditional Cave-like song here is Water's Edge: a nagging, prowling, quietly seething murder ballad about city girls meeting a nasty end by the seaside. It is also one of the album's best tracks, perhaps because it has an emotional force and narrative rigour that is lacking elsewhere. Another peak is the dread-filled confessional Jubilee Street, which begins as a stately ballad with overtones of the much-covered 1960s standard Hey Joe, then cranks up slowly into a mighty widescreen roar of guilt-wracked mania, crime and punishment. In a mischievous twist, a later spoken-word track called Finishing Jubilee Street purports to recount a feverish dream Cave experienced immediately after writing the previous song.

Cave's dark humour, often overlooked by his music-press detractors, has become more overtly playful in recent years. The most obviously comic lyric here is Higgs Boson Blues, a slow-burn fantasy epic about an apocalyptic road trip to the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which manages to weave droll one-liners about Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus into the legend of the diabolically possessed blues pioneer Robert Johnson.

These surreal stream-of-consciousness rambles are amusing enough in small doses, but they ultimately feel more like party tricks than serious songs. That holds true for Push the Sky Away as a whole. While this experimental sideways step is full of interesting sounds and ideas, it ultimately lacks the emotional intensity, romantic poetry and fierce beauty of Cave's best work.