Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Push the Sky Away is an exercise in true restraint. Whereas Cave's brawny, explosive, visceral and eternally unpredictable band Grinderman primarily uses restraint as a means of contrast, Sky — perhaps more than any other Bad Seeds record in recent memory — dwells start to finish in a state of ongoing anticipation.
With Cave in the driver's seat as always, Push the Sky Away is the Bad Seeds' 15th album, and their first without band leader Mick Harvey — Harvey being, until his departure in 2009, the only other remaining founding member and Cave's onetime Birthday Party bandmate. Recorded at La Fabrique, a 19th century mansion in southern France, Sky has an ornate sound to match its ornate birthplace.
"Mostly because of the atmospheric consistency of the sound, it ended up very much like a record that you put on, and you enter, and you go through a sequence of songs and you go into a new world, a different world, and the final song kind of releases you from that world," Cave told eMusic in an interview last month. "It's an old-school record, in the sense that the songs bolster each other up and refer to each other, and on some level need to be listened to as a bunch of songs."
Not only is Push the Sky Away consistent, cohesive and restrained, indeed it's beautiful as well. The man who once wrote a song called "No Pussy Blues" — and even here croons the lyric "I was the match that would fire up her snatch" — knows a thing or two about extremes, and Push the Sky Away is (sonically, anyhow) an extremely pleasant listen, from the gracefully gliding strings and flute of opener "We No Who U R" to the hypnotically stereo-panning organ of the titular album-closer.
But all that lush beauty certainly doesn't stop Cave and the Seeds from being utterly menacing, as demonstrated with the thudding, one-note bass line of "We Real Cool." Still, all throughout "Cool," we're waiting for that moment of release — the moment when Cave, in all his erudite lyricism, will snap loose and scream at us to pay closer attention. Instead, he tells us the number of light-years between us and the stars Sirius and Arcturus, before mumbling, "Wikipedia is heaven."
But that's the attractive — if frequently overly obfuscated — nature of the gothic poet. Nick Cave is the nightmare man, whispering at you from the foot of the bed in his three-piece suit and unctuous haircut. Like a snake oil salesman peddling some sordid salve, Cave describes alien vantages to us, tying his various lasciviously poetic and morose statements together with seeming non-sequiturs. In "Higgs Boson Blues," he ranges from nearly impenetrable to plainly comical as he describes the scene of Hannah Montana doing the African savannah, punctuating his description of Miley Cyrus' jaunt with a seemingly intentionally banal note that "rainy days make me sad."
"Jubilee Street" probably comes closest to a clear-cut moment of cathartic release, its cacophonic swell of strings rising to a pinnacle before fading away. "I got love in my tummy and a tiny little pain," sings Cave, "and a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain."
On Push the Sky Away, it would seem, the Bad Seeds are the 60-pound chain, Cave the 10-ton catastrophe. We know Nick — we've seen what he's capable of, and we're waiting for it to drop. But it never quite does. Instead, he remains carefully and precariously tethered — grounded — by a backing band he describes in a release as "unlike any other band on earth for pure, instinctive inventiveness."
The Bad Seeds keep the nightmare man in his cage, making it safe for us all to watch.