(Bad Seed Ltd.)
BY FRED MILLS
This ain’t yer mama’s Bad Seeds — or at least not the Bad Seeds of 2008’s Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, a dark, deliciously decadent blast of voodoo hoodoo and post-punk rumble that at times seemed intent upon exhuming the fetid corpse of Cave’s old band the Birthday Party. Instead, Push The Sky Away plays like an extended, brooding, stream-of-consciousness meditation upon sex, sin, salvation and – most important – transcendence. There’s an uncommon restraint here which, coupled with a newfound gift for rich, lustrous melodicism, offers the listener a lingering, afterglow-like catharsis rather than a series of blinding, ejaculatory shocks.
Part of the difference is strategic: Cave’s Bad Seeds co-founder and arranger/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey departed following the Lazarus tour, leaving the band’s internal dynamic permanently changed and violinist Warren Ellis the most likely member to step up and assume fresh duties. Too, from 2009-11 Cave, Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn Casey concentrated on their blooze/psych/punk-fueled Grinderman project, kicking out the jams and, perhaps, purging the systems. Structurally speaking, PTSA is infused with an ambiance of grace, both from the presence on several tracks of a children’s choir and from Ellis’ cinematic sense of how to position his strings and loops in the mix. The album was recorded with producer Nick Launay in a 19th century mansion located in the South of France, so one must not underestimate the power of setting, either.
To that, Cave adds what must be some of the most emotionally resonant vocals of his career, as vividly evidenced on a pair of extended tracks. “Jubilee Street” finds him enunciating with a Cohen-like precision and utilizing Ferry-esque nuances as he narrates a tale of implied malevolence and of what lurks behind the curtain-drop: “I am alone now… beyond recriminations… I’m transforming, I’m vibrating, I’m glowin’, I’m flyin’ — look at me now!” Meanwhile, the choir gradually swells; the violin and guitar seethe; and then these Seeds are flyin’ too. Look at them now.
And “Higgs Boson Blues” is positively surreal. Only Cave, that louche lyricist, that edgy evangelist, that blues bastard, could get away with a subtly porn-ish line like “Hannah Montana does the African savannah as the simulated rainy season begins.” The line occurs midway through the eight-minute penultimate cut on Push The Sky Away, and in addition to the titular elementary particle and the erstwhile tween pop star, Robert Johnson, Lucifer, a tribe of pygmies and, er, pink dolphins make cameos. Its trademark Cave-ian lasciviousness feels lip-smackingly decadent, even as the music itself is given to a bluesy sway more suited to a Harlem church than a rock stage.
Keep that contradiction mind. The album, in fact, seems almost chaste at times compared to earlier Cave/Seeds works, the artist’s early invocations of thunder o’er the horizon having now given way to something more insular. Running throughout the album is a distinctively gospel feel, from opening number “We No Who U R,” a ballad featuring the kids’ choir gently murmuring behind Cave’s baritone, to the closing title track, a droning, mournful, organ-powered elegy that finds Cave singing, an uncharacteristic weariness lining his vocal, “I’ve got a feeling I just can’t shake.” The quietude isn’t persistent or oppressive, however, and Push has enough vintage Cave/Seeds references to keep old-time fans happy, including the spark-to-blaze blues arrangement on “Jubilee Street” and the psychedelic “We Real Cool.”
But even the most overtly rock tracks here rely on tension more than release. As per the notation above, the lift-off and liberation come subtly, bearing the masterful marks of men who’ve learned the value of compositional patience (it’s no coincidence that Cave and Ellis have also forged a successful partnership as film scorers). This, ultimately, makes the emotional devastation you experience once the record has spun all the more remarkable. I’m not embarrassed to say that on multiple occasions, Push The Sky Away has left me choking back tears. Dig, listener, dig.
DOWNLOAD: “Jubilee Street,” “We Real Cool,” Higgs Boson Blues”
Portions of this review originally appeared in our favorite Atlanta-based rock mag, Stomp And Stammer. Accept no substitute: http://www.stompandstammer.com