Nick Cave’s 15th album with the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, doesn’t want to be a masterpiece. Sure, it’s got a couple of songs — the lilting, menacing “Jubilee Street” and the creeping, spiraling “Higgs Boson Blues” — that push past the six-minute mark, and ponders subjects as weighty as the origins of the universe and the apocalypse (in the same song, yet). But just when the Bad Seeds — minus longtime guitarist Mick Harvey, whose departure tilts Sky toward the low end — settle into a comfortably morbid groove, Cave throws a lyrics curveball. “We Real Cool,” which takes its title from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, opens with the machine-gun stutter of a repeated bass note, with Cave sounding like a doomsaying preacher hurling words from the pulpit. But in the end, he reveals himself as just another punter with a laptop, aimlessly Googling the night away: “Sirius is 8.6 light years away/ Arcturus is 37/ The past is the past/ and it’s here to stay/ Wikipedia is heaven/ when you don’t remember anymore.”
The past, or more specifically its absence, comes up a lot on Push the Sky Away. Warren Ellis’s skittering loops, which recall the atmospheric spread of the soundtrack albums he and Cave have made in recent years, have no beginning and no end, like the woman on “Jubilee Street” who “had a history but she had no past.” Myth and reality jumble in an eternal present, with Robert Johnson on one end and Miley Cyrus on the other. The discovery of the Higgs boson may have brought scientists closer to understanding how the universe works, but in “Higgs Boson Blues,” Cave only has questions. Ranging from Geneva to Memphis, calling on Lucifer and the ghost of Martin Luther King, the song mingles the mysterious and the mundane until it’s not clear which is which. It’s certainly not as self-consciously weighty as Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, or as primal as Cave’s Grinderman albums, but Push the Sky Away‘s free-associative trawl exerts a strange fascination, like a dream you’re not quite sure you had.