[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was an incredibly strong year for music, both from young hopefuls and from established acts. As always, compiling a list of only ten albums was like trying to choose between which limb you’d rather lose. However, the fact that it is a such struggle to whittle the year’s output down to ten albums is always a good sign that there’s plenty of new music to get excited about, and long may it continue that way. So, let’s kick this year off right…

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10. Jack White – Lazaretto
And in the blue corner, the genre-bending third man, weighing in at #10 this year is Jack White, whose Lazaretto came out swinging this summer. No other artist these days is so evidently firing on all cylinders, buzzing off their own momentum, but makes it look so infuriatingly effortless.

2014 Banner 99. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
Full of high drama, junkyard romance and dreamy noir, Milk For Your Motors has been successfully fulfilling my Nick Cave fix this year. Spangled guitars twinkle over shuffling percussion and carny organs, while Ray’s honeyed vocals drift effortlessly through this shadowy landscape. Simply gothic-tinged pop goodness.

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8. The Rails – Fair Warning
The debut offering from a married folk-rock duo with a fine pedigree. Their tales have an inherent universality and a healthy respect for folk tradition, but also display their confidence and capability to carve out a plot for themselves that feels totally contemporary. Fair Warning rambles, gambles, rocks and rolls.

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7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
I’ve always been a bit on/off with Van Etten, but this is her first record where she seems completely comfortable in her own skin, delivering yearning, accomplished rock songs that reflect a boldness which was shaky before. Replete with panoramic self-expression without resorting to navel-gazing, Are We There is acerbic, cathartic and triumphant.

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6. Interpol – El Pintor
The release of anything by NY’s best dressed is cause for celebration, but what I didn’t expect was an album that brimmed with the dark, beguiling magic that characterised their debut. Bassist Carlos D may be errant, but the remaining trio have created a surging album of nocturnal alt. rock that is quintessential Interpol.

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5. Smoke Fairies – Smoke Fairies
Beautiful, dreamy pop music of many depths that fuses elements of gentle folk, moody rock and soaring electro-pop with some of the most mesmerising vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while. The Chichester duo have been doing this for years, but somehow they always slipped through my grip until last year. Still, better late than never, especially with such masterfully built melodies as Eclipse Them All and Your Own Silent Movie, an uplifting anthem for those who live their lives soundtracked by music. What can I say? I relate.

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4. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Emma Jean
I saw Fields, now 63, with The Expressions support Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings (who also released a stonking, hip-shaking record last year) in the autumn and for sheer energy and showmanship he blew every other act I saw in 2014 out of the water. That roaring energy is palpable on Emma Jean, which manages to take different facets of James Brown funk, Memphis soul and old-school R&B, and pull it off with inspiration and flair. Love, loss, life and struggle; it’s all here in spades and it never sounded so good.

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3. The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
For my money, The Roots are one of the most intelligent and significant forces in music today, and the only band that can allude to both Nas and Dylan Thomas in the space of two lines (Never). Making uncompromising use of samples and jazzy countermelodies, …atysyc is a concretely dense album full of discomfort that satirises and problematises the ubiquity of violence in society and the media. It’s exactly what hip-hop should be: a giant melting pot where disparate elements combine to reflect something of our nature. If you haven’t read Questlove’s article series How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, I really encourage you to do so.

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2. Mirel Wagner – When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day
The second LP from the Finnish songwriter (and her first for Sub-Pop) is an elemental, earthy affair, which echoes John Steinbeck for the stark vividness of imagery and the dustbowl ghosts that seem to linger around these ballads. Her lyrics are heavy on blood lines and the tracks we make on the earth which holds our bones, while the plaintive brushing of acoustic strings seem to breathe the dust of ages. But, what resonates most is Wagner’s voice: Commanding, almost ancient in its unflinching directness, and laden with undeniable truths that bury themselves deep. Utter ragged glory and a masterpiece of songwriting.

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1. Warpaint – Warpaint
Sounding like Laurel Canyon via The Twilight Zone, Warpaint’s crepuscular sophomore effort is darker and more seductive than its predecessor (something I didn’t think possible) and was my go-to soundtrack last year. Absorbing minimalist electronics and the vast deserts of Joshua Tree into their idiosyncratic, jam-oriented formula, Warpaint have created a brooding, delicious treat that taps into something thrumming in the subconscious. No other album last year exerted the same enigmatic pull on me despite being on constant rotation. If anything, it becomes more mysterious the more I think I know it and for that reason, it takes my album of the year.

So long, 2014, and thanks for all the great music.

What were your favourite music moments of 2014? Let me know in the comments below.

– Originally appeared on Hercules Moment.

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[Sound and Vision]: 20,000 Days On Earth

20000days “I feel I can control the weather with my moods, I just can’t control my moods is all.”

A life in the day.

As Nick Cave rises early from his bed and opens the shutters on a stormy day towards the beginning of 20,000 Days On Earth, he outlines his daily routine in a conspiratorial interior monologue: “I wake, I write, I eat, I watch TV”. This in itself is a fair synopsis of the film, which charts a fictitious day in the life of Cave as he drives around his chosen hometown of Brighton attending a therapy session, visiting his personal archives and dining with Bad Seed and right-hand man Warren Ellis (whose backwoods svengali appearance is an amusing contrast to Cave’s bank-clerk-cum-preacher manner) before returning home. However, as with much of Cave’s work, much more is conveyed during Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s captivating portrait of the mercurial musician than a simple synopsis suggests.

Lying somewhere between straight documentary and psychological drama, 20,000 Days is a mix of orchestrated events and spontaneous conversations, as Cave is placed in situations and conversations that allow him to eloquently muses on his memories, his fears and his creative process. Interspersed throughout are songwriting and recording sessions in Saint-Rémy de Provence for last year’s Bad Seeds record Push The Sky Away (The Grapevine’s Best Album of 2013), offering rare insights into the putative formation of these songs (including a gentle piano ballad which loses its mojo once Ellis notes its similarity to a Lionel Richie song). Elsewhere an enrapturing live performance showcases The Bad Seeds in full messianic flight, Cave seemingly transformed into a lightning rod of a man as a young audience hang enthralled upon his every word.

As Cave drives between encounters he has conversations with friends Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld (one of Cave’s primary creative foils over the years, along with Ellis and Mick Harvey) and Kylie Minogue, Cave’s duet partner on The Bad Seeds’s biggest hit, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. They appear unannounced in his car as if figments of his imagination or ghosts, as the film blurs the lines between past and present, fact and fiction. These shifting spaces and temporalities serve not only to relate Cave’s history with an engaging immediacy, but also allow Forsyth and Pollard to focus in on recurring themes of mortality, creativity and spirituality which seem to preoccupy Cave.

Equally as captivating as Cave’s magnetic onscreen personality is the spellbinding cinematography. Shots veer between eye-watering lucidity, vividly capturing subtle gestures and flecks of spray chucked up by a grey sea, and a ponderous, hazy gaze as street lights smear on Cave’s windshield. Simply put, the film is bewitchingly beautiful, and creates the sense that time itself is stretching and warping as the past impinges on the present.

Over the course of 20,000 Days Cave seemingly reveals a lot behind his imposingly slim figure: he explains his songwriting process (“It’s all about counterpoint”) and conveys his fears of not reaching a creative place he is satisfied with; a session with psychoanalyst Darian Leader focuses on his formative experiences with music, girls and the metamorphosing effect of his father reading and explaining the opening chapter of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to him; while scouring through the artefacts of his personal archives and talking to old cohorts allows Cave to reminisce on his career and relate anecdotes about Tracey Pew intercepting a pissing stage crasher at a Birthday Party gig, meeting his wife in an art gallery, and introducing a belligerent and terrifying Dr. Nina Simone at the Meltdown Festival he curated in 1999.

Forsyth and Pollard have not merely a created a documentary, but have crafted the most engaging and dynamic way of perceptively exploring what Nick Cave does and how the creative endeavours of mankind in general attempt to tap into something transcendent and beyond ourselves. But for an enigmatic artist whose work distorts the boundaries between the real and supernatural and who has long manipulated his own mythic persona, the question you’re left wondering as the camera floats away from Cave, standing solitary on a twilit Brighton beach, is whether you’ve actually seen behind the curtains, or if you have been speaking to the Wizard of Oz all along?

20,000 Days On Earth is in cinemas now.

[Artist Spotlight]: Antun Opic

antun opic1“I won’t bow, I won’t beg to your lack of respect / The big desert you spread in my head”

Peddling intelligent bluesy-folk with a gypsy jazz swing to it, Antun Opic has been creating rumblings over in Europe for a while now. After cutting his teeth in Munich street band Wildwuxx and getting his onstage education touring with punk-cabaret group Strom & Wasser, Opic decided to set off on his own, enlisting the help of acoustic bassist Horst Richard Fritscher and guitarist Tobias Kavelar (who actually used to teach Opic guitar). 

While Opic’s driving guitar and idiosyncratic vocals take centre stage, Kavelar’s fluid lead embellishments complement Opic’s gypsy rhythms in the same way Stéphane Grapelli’s slinky violin lines kept Django Reinhardt on his toes. Meanwhile, Fritscher’s mellifluous bass playing anchors their ramshackle grooves and together the trio evoke the musical raggedness of Tom Waits, fused with the wild-eyed conviction of The Birthday Party era Nick Cave.

Although he was born in Croatia, Opic was mostly raised in Germany with his family making regular trips to see his grandparents in Croatia, even during times of war. “Much of the sunny country I used to call home had suddenly turned into a political hot spot,” he says. “Today it is mostly a desolate place and people are traumatised”. As a result of his mixed upbringing Opic feels rootless, saying “I come from Croatia and Germany: A half breed. So, I don’t feel home anywhere.”

Perhaps that is why his songs are populated by wanderers and outsiders, the kind of Film Noir strays that Opic freely admits are “the ones you don’t want to know, actually”. Some, like the embittered snitch of ‘The Informer’ or the twisted enforcer of ‘Juanita Guerolita’ are vicious misfits. Meanwhile, others are just looking for a way out as on ‘Moses – Let My People Go’ which approaches traditional tales of exodus from a new perspective. This assortment of Brechtian characters comes partly from Opic’s love of theatre, but also from the distance that writing in another language affords him, as he reveals “I think and I speak in German, but when writing in English I step back and I can create a character which has nothing to do with myself”. 

After putting out an album of demos entitled You Can Spare A Dime on his own digital label Antuned, Opic released his first album proper, No Offense, in September of last year. Rather than hiring a producer the trio decided to record and produce the album themselves, allowing them to push each other further in what Fritscher describes as “a constant creative process”. The band have had considerable success in Europe, touring across Germany, France, Croatia, Slovenia and recently made their UK debut with a show in London last month. Although there are no further UK shows planned as of yet, it is a significant step toward Opic’s desire to bring his songs to an international audience and more are sure to follow soon (we hope!).

No Offense is available now through Antuned/Traaxx Music.

[On The Record]: Confessional Records.

As the mornings get colder and the nights draw in close, I always find myself listening to albums of a more personal nature. Maybe I’m a bit voyeuristic, but I do love a good confessional or break-up record full of excoriating truths and heart wrenching tales. Somewhere in between the longing and anger though, there is a cathartic comfort to be found. Against the closing in of autumn and winter such albums can feel like small intense fires, which warm you through to your bones. So, I thought I’d give a rundown of some of my in-the-wee-small-hours-of-the-morning favourites…

Bob Dylan – Blood On The Tracks

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“Sundown, yellow moon, I replay the past, / I know every scene by heart, they all went by so fast.”

With any artist there’s always the tricky matter of how much to take as autobiographical and how much is artistic license. This is especially the case with Bob Dylan, an artist who has delighted in misleading and provoking listeners and critics alike. However, Blood on the Tracks, written around the time of his separation from then-wife, Sara, is probably the closest we will ever get to Dylan’s personal experiences and observations on relationships. It is a dizzying collection of scenes, some depicting longing and bitterness (‘You’re A Big Girl Now’), others articulating contentment and fond memories (‘Shelter From The Storm’). As ever though, Dylan playfully leaves questions unanswered in even his most detailed accounts and sometimes he merely treats us to a glimpse of a girl who “might be in Tangiers”, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions. Even if these stories are not true of him, these perceptive songs are certainly true of somebody at some time or another and rank among Dylan’s finest work.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

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“We will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky, / But they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment then they die.”

After the chilling and blackly-comic Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call was something of a complete U-turn for The Bad Seeds. Where the former is lascivious and merciless, the latter is sombre and restrained, displaying monk-like calm throughout the grief and intense self-scrutiny. Sparked by Nick Cave’s break up with PJ Harvey, he would later denounce it saying “I’d got dumped by some bird and here I was making this grand statement – about some fucking sheila!”’ Despite Cave’s retrospective criticisms of the album, it remains one of the Bad Seeds’s best records and features some of Cave’s most beautifully written lyrics. The album moves from optimism on spiritual-devotional love songs ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ through to misanthropy and self-loathing on ‘People Ain’t No Good’ and bleak album-closer ‘Green Eyes’. Against the backdrop of meditative melodies from the Bad Seeds, it is Cave’s commanding voice which really drives the album home, striking through to the core as if he were delivering a sermon from a pulpit.

Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

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“Life is funny, but not haha funny, / Peculiar, I guess.”

 From an album whose near opening lines are “My name’s Elizabeth, my life is piss and shit”, you’d expect Electro-Shock Blues to be one long doom and gloom fest. Given the details of Mark Oliver Everett a.k.a. E’s life, you’d forgive him for it (see the album’s story in comics here). But as ever, E finds comfort in creating esoteric, feel-good music with a serious side. It’s a journey you share with E all the way to its stoic conclusion on ‘P.S You Rock My World’ (“I was at a funeral the day I realised I wanted to spend my life with you […] And I was thinking about how everyone is dying, And maybe it’s time to live”). Graceful and indomitable, the album is a lesson in carrying on. Just as good is his recent three album cycle Hombre Lobo, End Times, Tomorrow Morning which follow relationships from infatuation to disintegration to recuperation.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

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“The bed’s too big, / The frying pan’s too wide.”

The biggy in the confessional album world, Blue really is the archetypal confessional album. As Joni Mitchell broke up with longtime partner, Graham Nash, and an increasing post-60’s hangover began to set in for the summer-of-love generation, she moved away from her flower-child image and further explored the personal side of her songwriting. What resulted on Blue was Mitchell letting all her barriers down and giving herself over completely to unmitigated emotional expression, revisiting experiences of infatuation, insecurity, estrangement and giving a child up for adoption. The diverse emotional ground she covers is vast, conveying both painful and joyful experiences in all their emotional intensity. Probably Mitchell’s greatest achievement with this album though is that she really manages to communicate the emotions present in each song, and not just their sentiments.

The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

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“I heard a curse being born, / Forming each finger and forming each thorn.”

Set up by Brian Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins as a more unplugged and intimate outfit than The Gaslight Anthem, The Horrible Crowes’s Elsie shot into the top five of my best of 2011 list and it has been played many times since then. Dealing with themes of loneliness and heartbreak, it seems no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem’s following album, Handwritten, tackled more difficult personal issues than their previous output. On Elsie, Fallon strikes a fine balance between hushed and intimate moments like ‘Sugar’ and raucous belters full of rage like ‘Mary Ann’.  And while there are plenty of tear-jerkers (’Cherry Blossoms’ is particularly gut-wrenching), Fallon ultimately ends on an optimistic note with ‘I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together’. Raw, poignant and sublimely crafted, Elsie marks out Brian Fallon as a major songwriting talent in America today.

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

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“For every life… forgo the parable”

Suffering from glandular fever and break-ups with his former band DeYarmond Edison and a relationship, Justin Vernon retreated to a hunting cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin over the winter of 2006 in order to lick his wounds. When Vernon re-emerged in spring 2007 he had recovered from his ailments and carried with him a collection of nine personal songs he had recorded. Self-released under the moniker Bon Iver (derived from the greeting “bon hiver”, French for “good winter”) on a small initial pressing in mid-2007 and later reaching worldwide release in 2008, For Emma, Forever Ago sounded like nothing else when it landed. Complex, yet minimalist, the album perfectly evokes the intimate atmosphere in which it was made, every note indelibly placed and resonating to fill the space. Meanwhile, Vernon delivers his cryptic lyrics in an elastic voice charged with emotional energy that stops you in your tracks. It is the sound of loneliness, introspection and, above all, healing. As ‘re:stacks’ fades out at the album’s close, there is the barely perceptible sound of Vernon walking away from the microphone and dialling a number, signalling that he is ready to return form hibernation.

Tom Waits – Blue Valentine

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“I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings, / And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet”

Despite his gruff exterior (and even gruffer voice) Tom Waits has always had a soft spot for romance, especially where the bungled and the botched are concerned. Even when his characters are in the gutter, more often than not they have one eye cast up at the stars. As Waits began to stretch himself and break out of his boho-poet image he made Blue Valentine, a blues-jazz masterpiece documenting romance in the dark areas of town, and the danger that inevitably follows. In some areas he is the danger (‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard and ‘A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’), and sometimes the danger finds him (‘Romeo is Bleeding’, ‘$29.00’). Sometimes he sings with tongue firmly in cheek (‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’) and sometimes he is achingly honest (‘Blue Valentines’). Covering fractured romances in all their comic and heroic guises, Waits’s most triumphant moment is on the poignant ‘Kentucky Avenue’ where he recalls an intense childhood friendship with a boy who suffered from polio. A romantic album for all the broken things out there.

Josh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

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“Oh, the appleblossom rag, lord, I’m such a fool, / For things that sing so sweet and sad, and are so goddamn cruel.”

For a year after a bitter divorce from his wife, songwriter Dawn Landes, Josh Ritter experienced difficulties sleeping, passing out from the exhaustion of an intensive schedule only to be wakened by nightmares. His dreams were so awful he took to fearing sleep, as if his grief were hunting him down. Out of this state came the germs of The Beast In Its Tracks, where he claims songwriting proved a retreat: “Some nights, the songs I was working on helped me stay ahead of it. Other nights, the heartbreak got me”. The album is actually cheerier than its birth might suggest and Ritter delivers much of the album from the perspective of having recovered and become a father in the interim. ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘In Your Arms Again’ sees Ritter safe in the arms of a new lover and thankful for the tranquility. However, The Beast In Its Tracks has plenty of the darkness of those haunted nights too, delivered often by sleight of hand. ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ covers self-deception in a plaintive solo acoustic performance while ‘Evil Eye’ and ‘Nightmares’ bounce along on cheerful melodies which disguise Ritter’s harrowing lyrics documenting his night terrors. Even ‘New Lover’, one of the uplifting singles where Ritter evenhandedly wishes his old lover well in the light of his new, happy relationship, has a sucker-punch at the end so sly that you barely notice it as the song sweeps you along on its jubilant energy: “But if you are sad and you are lonesome and you got nobody true, / I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me happy too”. Between the bitterness and newfound happiness, Ritter documents a long road to recovery experienced by many of us and perfectly captures that turning point where you realise “Yeah, I’ll live through this” on ‘Joy To You Baby’.

What are your favourite confessional albums? Let me know in the comments below.

[Single Review]: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Jubilee Street

jubilee street-592‘She had a history, but she had no past’

So, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds release their new album, Push The Sky Away, tomorrow and I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited about it. I’ve followed Nick Cave’s output for the best part of ten years now and he’s one of those rare artists that is relentlessly energetic and not afraid to turn their hand to anything. From film soundtracks to novels and all points in between, everything he touches turns golden. If there’s one artist you can always place good money on, it’s Nick Cave.

I suppose the reason I’m so interested in this album is that it will be the first Bad Seeds record to be released since the departure of Cave’s first mate, Mick Harvey. This move didn’t seem so strange as since No More Shall We Part, one of my favourite Nick Cave albums, Cave has been gravitating closer towards Warren Ellis as a songwriting partner, most evident in their stunning film soundtracks. This also means that the difference between the crews of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s busman’s holiday, Grinderman, is even smaller than before. Obviously, this means that there is an increased risk that the output of both bands will start to mimic the other. So I suppose I’m anxious as well as excited.

Listening to the two preview tracks from Push The Sky Away, ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘We No Who U R’, it seems that these fears may be hopefully allayed. These songs definitely do not belong to the lecherously raucous domain of Grinderman. If anything, it seems that the departure of Mick Harvey’s groove-driven guitarwork has allowed for more space for the Bad Seeds to stretch out in. That is not to discredit Harvey, far from it. I consider him to be one of the most tactful and talented musicians of the last 25 years and his work with PJ Harvey is as great as his Bad Seeds work. But, these tracks are definitely of a more meditative and contemplative atmosphere that bears more resemblance to Cave’s soundtrack work than with any Bad Seeds or Grinderman precursor. They’re restrained and muscular, as if Cave and co. are pulling their punches, not quite revealing all. The bass, percussion and organ elements are definitely more fleshed out and it allows for what I can only really describe as ‘space to breathe’.

‘Jubilee Street’, named after what Cave mistakenly thought to be the red-light district in Brighton, is arguably the strongest ballad Cave has written since 2004’s Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus and, in typical Cave style, is about the relationship between a prostitute and her john. It’s a track that is beautiful in its restrained simplicity: The groove is solemn, the beats are minimal and the strings are lean and refined. The mood lingers somewhere between reverence and menace (Cave’s prime stomping grounds) and allows the perfect platform for Cave’s half parable/half pulp novel. It is a testament to Cave’s subtle yet commanding vocals that he can make a line like ‘I’ve got a foetus on a leash’ sound completely acceptable (given the circumstances) rather than shocking and distasteful. Juxtaposed with these raw moments are some of Cave’s finest cut sentiments, like ‘Here I come up the hill, / I’m pushing my wheel of love’ and ‘ten-ton catastrophe on a sixty-pound chain’. The song’s finale is magnificent, lifting Cave’s sermon to transcendental heights. That may sound wishy-washy, but honestly, it is that good. Ray Winstone also puts in a surprisingly restrained performance in the video.

If tracks such as this are any indication, then Push the Sky Away is looking to be a rewardingly enigmatic affair where the Bad Seeds have lost none of their energy and gravitas for their restraint. If anything it has honed and refined their craft to scalpel sharp keenness. The music seems more spiritual and gestures to what may lie beyond the song, rather than defining its limits. Maybe that’s what the forthcoming album’s title, Push The Sky Away, is really suggesting: an indication of the infinite.

Push The Sky Away will be available 18th February through Mute Records.