[15 May 2008]
A band’s public letter of resignation means about as much as a junkie’s promise of abstinence. So it came as little surprise that Ministry, the 27-year-old project of former heroin addict Al “Alain/Alien/Buck Satan/Hypo Luxa/Grandpa” Jourgensen, are releasing Cover Up less than a year after their announced retirement in the form of 2007’s The Last Sucker.
On a technicality, the album is actually credited to Ministry and Co-Conspirators (which includes members of Fear Factory, Prong, Stayte, and the Revolting Cocks, essentially rounding the roster of the Jourgensen-run 13th Planet Records). Jourgensen claims that this is really it for Ministry, just one last booze cruise off into the golden sunset of AARP memberships and senior breakfast discounts at Denny’s.
“Cover Up”, the final album part two, is essentially just the past few Ministry albums with some famous lyrics sung on top of them. They rarely let loose the speed-metal energy, as might be expected from a formerly innovative band now signed to the label invented for Metallica. The breakneck thrash of Ministry’s takes on “Mississippi Queen” and “Roadhouse Blues” are catchy headbangers sure enough, but they rarely break out of the internal discursive language of genre conventions to hint at anything as classic as the similarly aggressive stomps in songs like “Thieves”, “Reload”, or “TV II”. It becomes glaringly apparent that Ministry has now distilled its form into the simplest essence, all punchline or all vitriol or all adrenaline, but rarely any combination thereof at once.
Formerly, the band had bent its outrage, loathing, and depravity through the collective lens of both its influences and its own storied history. On “classic” period Ministry, the post-punk angularity of Wire, Magazine, and Public Image Limited were transported through distortion pedals, filtered through Electronic Body grooves, pounded through Blixa Bargeld tin can percussion, and fed through old VHS tape loops of an Aleister Crowley incantations against the backdrop of the L.A. riots. Not to discredit heavy metal or its culture, but Ministry always seemed like they had a few more tricks up their sleeve. On Cover Up, the boys empty their sleeves and find nothing but silly gag gimmicks, like the plucky house synths that open their overlong version of “Under My Thumb”.
The absence of these mimeographic culture collages in Cover Up‘s Ministry becomes elucidated in the update of the 1000 Homo DJs version of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” featured here. To the untrained ear, it may seem to be a duplicate of the version included on the outfit’s lone EP, but I grew up on this song. I know it inside and out. While the Trent Reznor version appearing on the Wax Trax Black Box compilation may be a vocal redub of the EP track, the version here is strikingly different in a few ways. Notably, the newer version changes the pitch of the opening screed against musical drug advocacy from low to high and deemphasizes the harmonizing when Jourgensen/ Reznor scream “It never bothered meeeeee”.
Sound picky? It’s not. Those details matter. It’s what separated Ministry from Pig or Skrew when I was an impressionable youngster. As a pre-teen who’d never experienced the Sabbath version, the individualist anthem filled me with the same vigor and atheistic empowerment I’d imagine seventies teen outsiders felt while spinning Volume 4 on their basement turntables. The new version is still fun, perhaps better than any of the other new reinterpretations, but I can’t imagine too many teens blasting it out their car stereos for any reason other than to numb their ear drums with loud noises.
For many, Cover Up is not really a finale but a post-script. The Ministry the cynical older fans knew would never be reduced to hiring a bunch of growling, jacked, and tattooed industro-aggro contractors to play a rowdy compilation of tired pub band Anglo-blues standards by the likes of Ram Jam, Deep Purple, and ZZ Top. Especially not on their sendoff album. In Ministry’s prime, it was exactly that type of surging dinosaur waft to which the band seemed the most sadomasochistically alternative. Ministry and their myriad side projects used to be common hangouts for the some of the most challenging minds in and around music (Jello Biafra, Gibby Haynes, William S. Burroughs, Trent Reznor, Ian Mackaye, Timothy Leary), not a bunch of chumps unceremoniously dancing on turf that Ministry helped lay down. Many would call it blasphemy, and not in that good, “Stigmata” type of way.
Yet, oddly enough, it feels that the band has sailed to, and found, the edge of the earth on Cover Up. Their Arista debut With Sympathy found Ministry making well-produced, but ultimately hollow synthpop that seemed to be lurking desperately for an audience. Put that album next to Cover Up and you’ll find not a single sonic reference point to connect the two. Knowing both are the product of the same mind and the same voice (from With Sympathy‘s falsetto squeals to Cover Up‘s tar-throated roars) shows the incredible range Ministry’s career has encompassed.
Alain, shown in With Sympathy‘s artwork with a prim spiked new wave ‘do and makeup, soon learned how to stop worrying and love the darkness, this time with the shit-eating grin of someone who’d open up their follow-up proclaiming “The 1980s was run by a person who’s crazy/ Like you!/ The 1990s will be unkindly, exactly/ Like you!”. The entire career of the band came to be defined by its dark humor, taking shape most prominently in the horrific puns adorning albums like The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, The Dark Side of the Spoon, and the live album Sphinctour. They satirized American culture, ripped into religion, and even skewered Al’s own drug habit on The Dark Side of the Spoon‘s “Step”.
The band’s last provocative act could be Al’s ultimate concession to those who abandoned him along the way. Yep, Ministry have devolved into nothing more than hillbilly bar band, Cover Up seems to scream with irony peeling from every pore. Worse yet, a hillbilly covers band. A couple years back, the Jello Biafra-led side project Lard wrote a song called “70s Rock Must Die” complete with big dumb Aerosmith riffs and plenty of cowbell to go around.. Cover Up is the reverberated echo of Ministry still laughing at its old jokes (“Mississippi Queen” and “Space Truckin” even regurgitate the cowbells), conceding defeat in the face of mainstream music’s shallow soul, and officially broadcasting their jumping of the shark.
It all lies in the album’s final exhibit, a cover of the jazz-pop standard “What a Wonderful World”. It’s a marshmallowy affair, laced with glistening pianos and big dewy arrangements of washes cymbal and synth strings. The wistful grandeur of the original lies entirely in tact, albeit with a deranged hobo vocal, and the song’s only tongue-in-cheek trait is its complete earnestness. It’s only when the listener reaches this track, Cover Up‘s last, that they begin to believe the Ministry story may truly be over. It’s almost as if Jourgensen made a personal commitment to himself that when he begins covering “What a Wonderful World”, it’s time to pack it in.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of this is how Jourgensen pauses and carefully executes the line “They’re really saying/ I…love…you” with a gusto and big timpani bounces usually reserved for American Idol contestants. It’s probably the first recorded instance of Jourgensen ever uttering that phrase in the bands career, which is all the greater a signifier that the end times are upon us. As a one-time teenager obsessed with the group though, it’s kind of a touching moment. I almost feel like he’s saying it directly to me and each of his fans who’ve stuck through it with him.
Of course, Jourgensen can’t help himself and as the baroque ballad ends, a punk rave-up rendition of the same song begins. Its affectations of love are similarly emphasized, but its “yoooou” is beckoned as a portentous call into the ether in a style that can only be referred to as a near-mint facsimile of the way Jourgensen howls “standing over yoooou” in his rendition of Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” (originally released on Filth Pig but also featured on this album as the preceding cut). Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the band fully cements the notion that the creative well is dry, that they have “run out of lies”, so to speak. “What a Wonderful World” reappears again after the seven minutes double punch, split into its two renditions on two separate secret tracks. That’s “What a Wonderful World” four times in a row on a Ministry CD. Couple this with the fact that “Supernaut”, “Roadhouse Blues”, and the fantastically melodic and fuzzy “Lay Lady Lay” appear on previous releases, and it’s crystal clear that the band has run its course.
While Cover Up may not be the apotheosis of what Ministry have to offer, they still remain a group highly recommended for teenage obsessions.