In 1983, the Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan wrote his classic song “Cattle and Cane” using Nick Cave’s acoustic guitar. The story has it that Nick Cave was comatose after shooting up, and had no memory of the song being written. Later, Grant McLennan would confess that he had stolen that guitar’s only tune.
Twenty-four years later, and Nick Cave has finally started writing songs using a guitar, but it seems that the music he has written is the polar opposite of Grant McLennan’s gentle ballad.
It’s difficult to call Grinderman a side project for Nick Cave. His band members, Jim Sclavunos on drums, Martyn P. Casey on bass, and Warren Ellis on bouzouki, viola, violin and guitar, are all long-serving members of the Bad Seeds. The three musicians are also the backing band for Cave when he wants to go on a solo tour, playing his gentler, piano-based numbers rather than the Bad Seeds’ heavier material.
An album from that particular four-piece would have indicated that Nick Cave was looking to record a quieter, more melodic album than his usual fare, something more akin to The Boatman’s Call rather than, say, From Her to Eternity. But Grinderman proves to be anything but quiet—a noisy and dischordant eleven tracks that lends itself a lot more to Cave’s earlier outfit, the Birthday Party.
That isn’t to say that Cave is disregarding his development as a vocalist and as a songwriter over the last quarter of a century. With Grinderman, Cave sings rather that screeches and shouts, and his lyrics are far more complex, poetic, and witty than anything he recorded with the Birthday Party. The feature of this new album that lends itself to his earlier work is the sheer primacy. The songs are primitive, lecherous, and wild. The monkey on the cover of the album is in fact very appropriate to the band’s sound.
Nick Cave is far from being an accomplished guitarist, and his style tends to favour heavy distortion and droning riffs to compensate his lack of any virtuoso qualities. Strangely, it works to his advantage.
“No Pussy Blues” is a rhythmic number of only two notes; the driving simplicity allows the listener to focus on the hilarious lyrics of sexual frustration. (“I sent her every type of flower / I played her guitar by the hour / I patted her revolting little Chihuahua / But still she just didn’t want to.”) “Depth Charge Ethel” scores bonus marks for being possibly the first post-punk song about somebody named Ethel, and for its Deep Purple-esque heavy, distorted organ riffs.
Like songs like “Red Right Hand” and “Stagger Lee”, “Go Tell the Women” is a slow-moving number with a deep groove, and at first listen, one expects the track to break out into some seriously noisy instrumental breakdown, but it disappoints on the record. Despite this, the track seems to have some serious live potential.
“(I Don’t Need You to) Set Me Free” is perhaps the most radio-friendly track on the album, and would probably fit in better with some of the Bad Seeds’ later releases than on this album. It particularly showcases the talent of Martyn P. Casey as a bass player, who is unjustifiably ignored in the Bad Seeds.
The album was written in London’s Metropolis studios in a matter of days, and understandably, Grinderman does contain a few tracks that could easily be called filler. The title track lacks any real character, and “Man in the Moon” is nothing special. The record would have been stronger without these tracks. But while the album does fit in better with the Birthday Party than it does with most Bad Seeds albums, it does display a sense of maturity and development that could only be displayed by musicians of Grinderman’s age. It is unlikely that the über-cool Nick Cave of the ‘80s and even the ‘90s would have admitted listening to the BBC’s Gardening Question Time, as he does on the thrilling closer, “Love Bomb”.
Side projects are usually more entertaining to the participants than to the listener, and you can tell that the group had a great time recording the album. But Grinderman is fresh and invigorating, possibly Nick Cave’s funniest, and unusually for a side project, one of his least self-indulgent.