What Am I Doing Here?
Nick Cave’s first line on Grinderman 2 goes, “I woke up this morning and I thought what am I doing here?”
While he may not have meant it this way, there’s something increasingly familiar about that feeling of confusion. There’s a notion that everywhere we turn, we’re being confronted with outrage, with unchecked frustration, with an organic and natural outpouring of dissent and disenfranchisement—from tea partiers, from talking heads, from mosque picketers, from Quran burners, from the Right and the Left, from the privileged and the lower class, and on and on. Everywhere, there’s shouting and squabbling, and we’re supposed to believe that this just happened, that things have come to some sort of head. That simplistic approach to what passes for public discourse ignores the institutions that assemble, shape, and ultimately benefit from all this supposed outrage. People may be mad, but they’re not assembling in public places with hyperbolic picket signs out of the clear blue. It’s assembled, cleverly, to whip us into nonsensical shouting and, thus, away from any actual discussion.
Why mention this now? Well, listening to Grinderman is kind of the same thing. It’s easy to call what Nick Cave and company do here unruly or untethered, because the response it evokes is so visceral and, in a way, so shapeless. It scours you. It sneers at you. It makes your ears ring. It dares you to press on. But if you do, particularly on the excellent new record, Grinderman 2, you see just how much control they exert here, how they sit back behind the noisy squall and pull the strings in all the best, most sinister ways.
Of course, Grinderman is also operating as a counter to those institutional powers. The band is an agent of chaos, harnessing its frenzy to bust down institutions at every turn. What is so compelling about Cave’s songwriting here, and the accompanying music, is how unafraid it is of sounding abusive. Cave’s dramatic narratives are all rooted in intimacy—his narrator’s talk to a “baby” in nearly every song here—but these speakers also crush whatever is around them, starting with who’s closest.
Much of the record stands in contrast to the frustration that ruled the day on the first Grinderman record. Gone is the tense-to-bursting shame of “No Pussy Blues”, and in it’s place we’ve got the twisted brothers of “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”, who take what they want in manic fits. The speaker in “Worm Tamer” is resigned in his own wild-eyed way to a waning romantic love, even as he speaks only of the carnal—“Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster”, Cave sings. “Two great big humps and I’m gone”. Elsewhere, there’s the sinister tribute to the titular girl in “Heathen Child”, who assumes a religious importance as she tears everything down around her.
What is most interesting about these characters is how their self-destruction radiates out. They’re not locked away tormenting themselves, but rather scorching the earth all around them as they go. “When My Baby Comes” is the centerpiece here—and also the band’s finest hour—and puts all the album’s weird, blaring snarl on display. It builds slowly, with muted rhythms chugging along while Cave wonders, “Just how long you gonna be my baby? Until you come?” In yet another counterpoint to the sexual frustration on the last record, here we have a dichotomy of masculinity—the want to be free mixed with the desire to exert sexual prowess.
So it’s telling that when the (musical) climax comes, the ensuing freak out sounds dense and troubling. Warren Ellis’s guitar squeals and vulture-dives, while Martyn Casey’s bass delivers the fuzzed-out, rumbling riff that drives the song to its roiling finish. The entire record is all about the id at least in part, but not in the harmless, clever way that Robyn Hitchcock’s music can be. Instead, there’s a conflation of sexual politics and the very real violence of power on Grinderman 2 that makes it as unnerving as it is invigorating to listen to.
As Cave crumbles religion (“Heathen Child”) and mortality (“What I Know”) and marriage (“Kitchenette”) and whatever else gets in his way under the weight of doubt-fueled, sex-crazed mania, the band constructs otherworldly landscapes for him to stomp through. There’s the industrial clang and jungle sweat on “Worm Tamer”, which sounds the most uncontrolled, but holds its shape until the end. Contrastingly, the threadbare but taut atmospherics of “What I Know” refuse to ever take shape. Closer “Bellringer Blues”, perhaps the most deceptively heady mix, stacks layers on its spacious beat, and guitars vamp and groan in jarring, dissonant chunks. But the whole of the song is so strong, its gauzy, disparate elements combined into such an unbreakable weave, that it earns its spot as the towering and brilliant end to an already huge-sounding record.
For all it’s blunt-force heft and energy, Grinderman 2‘s true success comes in the feeling that, for all its size, the band is still holding something back. Really, it’s all right there in the cover art. That wolf is in a pristine, expensive bathroom. It’s been cleaned—note the wet fur—and made to blend in with its white-washed surroundings. But already it’s spotted something off camera, something it doesn’t like or something weak enough or dumb enough to push around. So it bears its teeth, straightens its legs, readies to strike. Put that kind of deep-down strength, that survival-based power into a room that controlled, and you better hope you have renter’s insurance. If Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin, or any of their ilk, could do that, well then they’d be people to shout about (or with, depending).