Emerging after a two week blast of recording in London last year, Grinderman is the name of both the album and the band made up of Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey, and Jim Sclavunos, and, of course, Dark Lord Nick Cave himself. Much more than a diversionary side project, it’s a foul mouthed, frequently hilarious discharge of midlife crisis rock and roll. The themes of aging, premature baldness, impotence and embarrassment are all over Grinderman like a rash, and never has Cave sounded quite so unburdened and—this is really saying something—unhinged. It’s as if they’re the abusive fathers of the perfectly preened and polite indie boy bands of today, and they’ve come to give them a good kicking. Rather brilliantly, Grinderman is just about rock and roll’s first proper man-band.
It’s these decidedly adult themes and the fact that, ragged though it is, the slicing punk blues and psychedelic garage rock here is so assured and defiantly musical, that it’s difficult to agree with the opinion that Grinderman is a return to the taut, bloody darkness of the Birthday Party. It might be free of much of the introspective quiet conflict that has characterised some of Cave’s more recent work, but to these ears at least, it seems to be more of a horrifically distorted continuation of the subject matter and sounds that Cave was dealing with on his last record (the wondrous Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus). It’s not too much of a sonic leap from that album’s storming “Get Ready for Love”, or the fierce creaking paean to warped romance and rejection of “Hiding All Away”, to the noise and clatter of Grinderman. Similarly, you feel that the music here will inform, in a major way, the next Bad Seeds release.
The record begins with some scratching guitar noise, and an energized Cave ranting like a demented preacher about white mice, baboons, black dogs, and motherfuckers, before a malicious guitar riff enters the fray and a single, hammered piano chord bashes out the propulsive rhythm. The song concerns the demise of a semi-fictional rock and roll hero dug up from the frozen snow; a man who “Drank panther piss / And fucked the girls you’re married to”. As an opening salvo, it’s a rollicking ride and a deliriously funny statement of intent.
“No Pussy Blues” is, in Cave’s words, “the howl in the dark of the Everyman”, a story of wounded macho pride. Cave plays the part of the lascivious, crude aging rocker trying to have his way with a cruelly disinterested groupie. Trying every approach, he spits out his words with increasing sexual frustration, singing “I bought her a dozen snow white doves / I did her dishes in rubber gloves / I called her Honey Bee, I called her love / But she just still didn’t want to”, before Warren Ellis’ shredding electric bouzouki solo cuts through the tension. Indeed, it’s a song so dripping in jagged red menace and impotent sexual violence that if it weren’t for the hilariously caricatured lyrics, it would be bloody terrifying.
We’re told that Cave has moved away from the piano and started playing electric guitar for the first time with Grinderman, a task he has taken to with the abandon and wonderful lack of attention to detail of someone who is presumably only just discovering the joys of thrashing out power chords at maximum volume. It’s unlikely a seasoned guitarist would scratch out the same broken down chord on “Grinderman” for over four minutes, but it’s precisely this trick that creates the song’s mood of creeping paranoia. Elsewhere, the tight blues groove of “(I Don’t Need You To) Set Me Free” is offset by the freedom of the flailing guitar and Cave’s gloriously restrained and sad love lyric. Slipping out of character and into his own shoes, “Man in the Moon” is surely the same song of longing that Cave has been singing to his prematurely departed father his whole life. The electric piano and sighing looped noise frame the starkest of lyrics, “Sitting here scratching in this rented room / Scratching and a-tapping to the man in the moon”. It’s by far the quietest and most hauntingly beautiful moment on Grinderman.
It might not, then, be a return to the swampy territory of the Birthday Party, but that’s no bad thing. Grinderman makes a freer, looser racket than the Bad Seeds, and at times sound like their hairier, rougher alter-ego—not looking back but pushing forward, with scant regard for measure or reason. Most of the songs have the gravity and time worn insight that can only come with the passing of youth, and as such, probably have more in common with old blues numbers than hit-and-run punk rock. There are phrases and loops that echo through different songs on the record, but always end up in the same, angry yet resigned heart of darkness. It’s unlikely that anyone else but Nick Cave could have delivered a set of lyrics so intentionally and unflinchingly funny and fraught as these. And they find their natural home in Grinderman’s grown up but wild and impulsive rock and roll. As an album, Grinderman, achieves the impossible feat of being a side project that rises above all the negative aspects that usually define such a venture, and it sits crookedly and uneasily alongside the very best work of Nick Cave’s remarkable career.
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// Notes from the Road
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