Kindred spirits: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker
Show: With Sharon Van Etten on Wednesday at Strathmore. Show starts at 8 p.m. 301-581-5100. www.strathmore.org. Show is sold out.
After two primal, screeching blues records with gut-kicking alter-ego Grinderman, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds got quiet. The last proper Seeds LP, the compelling and heavy “Dig! Lazarus Dig!” in 2008, was a raucous thrill, but 15 albums in, Cave knows when to change gears. On “Push the Sky Away,” he executes that moody shift with a well-practiced grace.
Subdued and dark but not blackened, Warren Ellis’s meditative instrumentation gives Cave a terse, fragile framework to fill. Without melodrama, Cave drops casual references to Wikipedia and Hannah Montana alongside extended psychedelic revelations and odes to untouchable mermaids. The record’s nine songs rely on bizarre juxtapositions but make a strange subconscious sense with Cave’s deft delivery. Album standout “Higgs Boson Blues” finds Cave eloquently talk-singing about driving to Geneva “while the cleaning ladies sob into their mops.”
But it’s not all mystical and abstract. On songs such as “Water’s Edge,” Cave opens with, “They take apart their bodies like toys for the local boys,” speaking perhaps to lurid, online encounters or to a more timeless loss of innocence. Either way, Cave walks in darkness without exploiting or admonishing it. It’s a wonder the album never feels abrasive. On “Push the Sky Away,” Cave trades his recent guttural thrust for more reserved observation, but his uncanny knack for culling truth and transcendence from the hideous is as moving as ever.