Sound — 8
For me, the release of a new studio album by Antipodean master of the epic piano ballad Nick Cave, reunited with his full band having laid his Grinderman side-project to rest, is the most anticipated release of the year so far - who are My Bloody Valentine. Expectations were high, when you consider that there was really no way of pre-empting the sound of this album. In the last decade or so he has drawn a line from huge, romantic ballads through gospel-punk and garage rock and blues, and somehow ended up here, at one of his most restrained albums to date. Of course, this change was bound to happen. In his last run of albums he's become the only remaining member of the original Bad Seeds lineup, after guitarists Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey left at various times during the 00s. So, he went into the studio without even having a lead guitarist, relying on the sonic sorcery of violinist and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis as his right-hand man instead. And considering that Ellis, since his days when Dirty Three was his main concern, has grown a beard and taken to splitting the sky in two with unholy noises created from abused electric mandolins, and Cave is the most downright intimidating frontman in music, what they have created together is very surprising. It's a restrained album of ballads, but not as durgey as "The Boatman's Call" or as epic and overblown as "No More Shall We Part". Simple loops of sound based around picked violins make up the sonic foundation for much of the album, from opener "We No Who You R" to understated highlight "Mermaids". "Water's Edge"'s depiction of a Saturday night in Cave's adopted hometown of Brighton is underpinned by menacingly throbbing bass and never really locks down into a proper groove, only adding to the unease, and "Higgs Boson Blues" suddenly rises and falls in volume as the band suddenly begin to play like a jazz combo. For me, though, the undisputed highlight is Jubilee Street. Knocking on the door of 7 minutes and beginning with steady drums and Warren Ellis picking on an electric tenor guitar (made by Eastwood and available from all good retailers), it spends most of its duration lightly straining against its leash - it gears up slightly as the second verse gets in, then Cave's jubilant cries of "Look at me, I'm glowin', I'm flyin'" usher in a bloom of strings, guitars, pianos and probably the kitchen sink, for the final few minutes - you'll find yourself checking the CD case to make sure you haven't put a Sigur Ros album on by mistake.
Lyrics — 9
If somehow Cave isn't the best songwriter in the world right now, he's definitely the best storyteller. "Push The Sky Away", however, finds him creating the most personal, introverted and confessional album of his career. "Mermaids" sees him "taking driving alertness course, husband alertness course", whilst "Finishing Jubilee Street" gives us a rare insight into what exactly goes on in the great man's mind. But old habits die hard, and the observational element of his songwriting rears its head a few times - "Higgs Boson Blues"' subconscious stream references everyone from Robert Johnson to Hannah Montana, whilst "Water's Edge" describes the riotous debauchery of a Saturday night in central Brighton, talking of local boys worshipping the "girls from the big city", "Their legs spread like bibles open". None of this would matter if Cave's voice wasn't up to it, and I'm delighted to report that at 55 years of age he hasn't lost anything. If anything, his voice has mellowed from the bellowing of Grinderman or the Old Testament rockabilly preacher of his earlier albums. When he wants to add menace to Water's Edge or We Real Cool, he can, but his rich baritone just adds to this being his most beautiful album to date.
Overall Impression — 8
Like I said, it's hard to tell what Nick Cave is going to do. Having spent the mid-1980s onwards sounding like a Gothic reincarnation of a Delta blues singer, followed by knocking out a few albums of heartfelt ballads, letting his male libido come to the fore for two albums with Grinderman then venting fire and brimstone on the previous Bad Seeds effort "Dig Lazarus Dig!!!", you can certainly never accuse him of sticking to a formula. This album has a different feel altogether though. Around the time he turned 50 he cut "Dig Lazarus Dig!!!", a bizarre album of scrambled blues and psychedelic rock, and veered into raw garage-punk territory on two albums with Grinderman, he has now come out the other side, grown-up, reflective and restrained. Long may it continue.