Darker than The Boatman's Call, more nuanced than Your Funeral…My Trial, Nick Cave's latest album, Push the Sky Away, proudly displays the talents that Australia's foremost prophet of doom has honed during his excursions in other media, especially in cinematic storytelling. The album is, of course, concerned with the themes that have occupied Cave throughout his career (fate, faith, fucking), but finds him in a far more meditative mood than on his most recent album with Grinderman. Subtle, sprawling, and often achingly beautiful, Push the Sky Away is a late-career masterpiece from an antipodean force of nature.
The incongruously abbreviated “We Know Who U R” is ominous and sparsely sketched, like a whispered threat. The Bad Seeds craft a twinkling soundscape of echoing drums and lullaby-soft keys, while Cave mournfully intones that “there's no need to forgive.” Resonant, elliptical lyrics about burning trees and blackened hands create such a Lynchian air of quiet horror that it casts a shadow over the otherwise unfettered loveliness of the next track, “Wide Lovely Eyes.” But while Cave has demonstrated his aptitude for straight-faced balladry on songs like “(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?” and “Into My Arms,” and he's more regretful and wearier here; “Wide Lovely Eyes” is a wistful goodbye rather than a romantic proposal.
That song finds its counterpoint immediately in “Water's Edge.” If the former concerns love, the latter charts lust. A metallic bass rumble that recalls “The Mercy Seat” plays off a weeping violin, whose sad wail communicates some wordless misery. Cave's poetry finds brilliant, brutal expression here, as he shares a story of animalistic sexuality, lasciviously describing “legs wide to the world like Bibles open to be speared.” Like a master of horror cinema, Cave appreciates that the most potent terror is in what's unseen, with primal power found in his suggestions of violence. There are even echoes of the shrieking “Psycho” strings in the funereal “We Real Cool,” a quasi-bibilical lament. In Murder Ballads, Cave recorded an album of songs for the killer, but Push the Sky Away seems to take as its reference point the music of the dead themselves: the dirge, the elegy, the funeral march.
Album centerpiece “Jubilee Street” is stately and dignified in its instrumentation, all sweeping strings and picked guitars, which initially distracts from the weirdness coming out of Cave's mouth (“I've got a fetus on a leash,” he sings). Yet it's hardly the strangest lyrical detail on an album full of surreal asides and images, an honor that goes to the baffling Hannah Montana reference on state-of-the-universe lament “Higgs Boson Blues,” joining Robert Johnson, advanced particle physics, and a mummified cat in a menagerie of apocalyptic visions delivered by Cave in his best fire-and-brimstone yowl. Running close behind is a delightfully disarming couplet from “Mermaids,” a song which draws the listener in with its “Straight to You” prettiness before Cave declares, “I was the match/That would fire up her snatch.” For every howl of end-of-days gloom Cave produces, there's always a moment of lewd humor to balance things out. Likewise, for every hiss of crude innuendo, there's a gleam of unalloyed beauty—in this case, the transcendent title track, which closes out Push the Sky Away with one of the finest melodies Cave has ever written. A deathly organ sounds as Cave ritualistically intones a near-monosyllabic whisper of defiance: “You've got to just/Keep on pushing.”
At 55, Cave is hardly the oldest of rock's veterans still producing powerful, relevant music—a whipper-snapper next to septuagenarians Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. But unlike most of his peers, Cave appears to show no sign of settling comfortably into the rock firmament, or, indeed, of compromising at all. It's a strange testament, but a testament nonetheless, to how little Cave has mellowed since his days in the Birthday Party almost 30 years ago that he can sing about girls “shaking their asses” on “Water's Edge” and not induce an embarrassed shudder in the listener. At the same time, Push the Sky Away is an album that could not have been created by the younger Cave: There are none of the easy gestures and hackneyed gothic images that formed his stock in trade as recently as Nocturama, but instead, a poet's lyrical subtlety. It's a risky conclusion to reach about an artist who's been recording music since the early 1970s, but in Push the Sky Away, an album of thrilling darkness pierced by moments of brilliant light, Cave may have crafted his defining statement.