Push The Sky Away is the first Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds album made without a single original Bad Seed (save Cave, of course). That fact alone shouldn’t mean too much. Cave has long shown himself to be an able collaborator under a myriad of circumstances, and The Bad Seeds have remained thrillingly consistent, in quality if not in sound, in spite of an ever-evolving lineup. But it’s also true that the last original member to leave, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, was in many ways the backbone of the band—as well as Cave’s right-hand man, a relationship that stretched all the way back to the ’70s and their previous outfits The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party. Harvey, like so many Bad Seeds before him, can be replaced. The chemistry cannot.
Not that any old scab is now filling Harvey’s shoes. The incomparable Barry Adamson, also a founding member of The Bad Seeds, has rejoined the band after a 27-year absence. Sadly, though, that happened after Push The Sky Away was recorded. That rootlessness permeates the album. Many longtime Bad Seeds remain, most notably Warren Ellis—but even his usually distinct contributions can barely be discerned. And on songs like the sleepy “We No Who U R” and the plodding “Jubilee Street,” Cave himself seems barely present—as leader, as singer, or as lyricist.
The gratuitously meta “Finishing Jubilee Street” injects Cave as a character into the unnecessary sequel to the track “Jubilee Street,” but only in the most insipid way. “I just finished writing ‘Jubilee Street,’” he sings, “I lay down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep.” Accordingly, the music sounds just as lazy. And the uninspired “Mermaids” opens not with the mythic menace it seems to be shooting for, but with a lousy pun: “She was a catch.” On the similarly bland “Higgs Boson Blues,” Cave’s humorless stream-of-consciousness produces lines like “Hannah Montana / Does the African Savanna.” If there’s a weaker couplet in Cave’s songbook, it’s yet to be sung.
Push They Sky Away’s oppressively hollow minimalism is both its biggest drawback and its greatest strength. When it works—such as on “Water’s Edge,” whose snaky scales give Ellis sorely needed space in which to weave his magic, or on “We Real Cool,” named after the Gwendolyn Brooks poem—it’s haunting. The problem is, Cave doesn’t know when to let his breath out. Most of the album’s tracks build listlessly to nowhere, and he similarly keeps his usually magnificent croon on a short leash. On The Bad Seeds’ last album, 2008’s Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, the grease and sleaze of Cave’s Grinderman project had clearly bled through to his main band. Now he’s gone slinking off in the opposite direction, toward a studied quietude that rarely rises above a mumble. The disc might not need Mick Harvey to season it—but it needs someone, or something, to heat up what amounts to a package of Cave cold cuts.