Those familiar with the work of musician Nick Cave will appreciate the juxtaposition of him working with a youth choir. The oft-menacing Australian-born singer, songwriter, screenwriter and novelist has long had a wicked streak. He’s bellowed in deep voice of bloody hands, junkies ascending to heaven, embodied in song-damaged women, horrible men and their oft-poisonous interactions.
Yet there he was, the gangly 55-year-old who over a dozen-plus studio albums has walked a singular path through rock, country and blues, addressing about two dozen preteens between songs, apparently worried about their bedtime. Performing in its entirety “Push the Sky Away,” Cave’s new album with his longtime backing band the Bad Seeds, the singer harnessed their voices to underline tension and expand drama.
“Aren’t they cute? Hi kids,” Cave said during one break, standing in front of his expert Bad Seeds, a string section and the youth choir from the Silver Lake Conservatory of Music. Some of them smiled.
That Cave had just moments prior sung his new song “Jubilee Street,” which referred to a fictional child as being “a 10-ton catastrophe on a 60-pound chain,” was (hopefully) lost on many of them. On another song, “Wide Lovely Eyes,” written for his wife and their current home of Brighton, England, Cave offered this vivid image: “They've hung the mermaids by the streetlights from their hair.” Nightmare fodder, for sure, which made Cave’s repeated queries on their well-being somewhat reassuring.
A singer whose wavering baritone comes from the Leonard Cohen/Johnny Cash/Lee Hazlewood school of inexpert voices who somehow turn limitation into strength, Cave has long been man obsessed with narrative tension and the power of the perfect lyric. Beginning with his musical ascent as lead singer of the incendiary Australian post-punk band the Birthday Party and gaining momentum beginning with his landmark 1984 solo debut, “From Her to Eternity,” the man has harnessed volume and drama to create intense story-songs. His is work that will be appreciated for decades to come.
“Are you ready for this one, kids,” Cave wondered at another time, smiling, clearly aware of the gulf that separated their wide-eyed, good-seed worldview with the grimmer aspects of his. (Cave is a father, after all.)
He then tore into “Higgs Boson Blues,” one of the highlights of “Sky,” a retelling of bluesman Robert Johnson’s fateful meeting in the Mississippi Delta with the devil. It’s one of the best songs he’s ever written — which is saying something for the man responsible for “Red Right Hand,” “Jack the Ripper,” “O Children,” “The Mercy Seat” and “Deanna,” all of which he played later in the night.
A dramatic narrative, Cave described Satan’s arrival in “Higgs Boson” as such: “Well here comes Lucifer with his canon law/And a hundred black babies running from his genocidal jaw.” The song unfolded over eight minutes, the choir offering smooth oohs while the phenomenally tight Bad Seeds — multi-instrumental Warren Ellis, guitarist (and co-founder of Aussie punks the Saints) Ed Kuepper, drummer Thomas Wylder, bassist Martin Casey, keyboardist Conway Savage and newly returned multi-instrumentalist Barry Adamson — built heavy tension.
But as Cave reminded the thrilled crowd — his is a devoted tribe, sometimes annoyingly so at the Fonda — his work can be lovely too, and he’s just as concerned with undying passion as with darkness and doubt. Cave revealed this on the closing title track from “Push the Sky Away.” A simple meditation on life and beauty, the song floated like an ocean breeze.
It was another title track, though, that represented for me the night's most profoundly emotional moment: A massive, knee-wobbling, tear-inducing version of “From Her to Eternity,” his great song of obsession with a woman living in the flat above. It’s a sparse, menacing track that suggests Elvis Presley possessed by a demon Kurt Weill.
I never thought I’d see him play it live, and its performance — with Ellis leading a scraping string section, Savage poking out that off-kilter piano melody and Adamson offering keyboard clusters — was overwhelming, music that conjured heaven and embodied the kind of bliss only present in the purest of expressions. The heavens opened over those five minutes, and I'm still buzzing about it.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit