“It’s a tiny bit weird standing up here in this theatre,” says Nick Cave. Usually home to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, the ornate theatre is, however, a suitable stage for the Brighton-dwelling Australian, rock’s most dramatic storyteller and a theatrical frontman who embodies every word that he sings.
Tonight is the unveiling of Push the Sky Away, the band’s 15th studio album, and their first in five years. Its beautiful melodies, stripped-back sound and subtle layers of instrumentation and vocals reveal the Bad Seeds’ tender side, and are as wide a swerve from Cave’s raw, blues-stomp band Grinderman as could be. In a one-off show, it is performed in its entirety – its sombre, elegiac tone a cohesive thread not to be broken.
The scene is set perfectly by the opener, “We No Who UR”. The Bad Seeds are joined by a string quintet and a choir of children and backing singers, and Cave, wiry in his trademark all-black suit, conducts them like a wild ringleader – when he’s not strutting the stage restlessly, arms flailing as he brings the lyrics to visceral life with a menacing growl, especially in the epic “Higgs Boson Blues”, in which Warren Ellis sends his violin into a hair-raising screech.
“Jubilee Street” is the album’s stunning centrepiece. Tonight, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. Around a brooding cyclical post-rock guitar lick, it builds soaring strings and percussion to an emotive climax. It results in a standing ovation.
Now 55, Cave applies dry wit that’s as razor sharp as his black suit. He introduces “Mermaids” with: “It’s kind of sad. Year after year, it just gets sadder and sadder. That’s life, man,” before spinning around to tell the children: “don’t listen to me, kids!” It’s also a song in which he proves himself the one frontman who can deliver such lines as “I was the match/ That would fire up her snatch/ There was a catch/ I was no match/ I was fired from her crotch” with unfailing conviction.
The second half is a greatest-hits set from the band’s impressive back catalogue, including the potent “The Mercy Seat” and “Deanna”. A tender and moving version of the melancholic love song “The Ship Song”, to which the children’s vocals add further poignancy, reduces many fans to tears.
No contemporary singer is quite as commanding as Cave – and this new masterpiece of an album proves that the band remains as powerful as ever.