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.
Label: Bad Seed Ltd. Release Date: February 19, 2013 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule
The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.3.5
Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.
If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.
While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.
Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead
The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.3.5
Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.
Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.
“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.
Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.
At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.
Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next
The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.3.5
Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”
Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.
Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.
That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.
Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon