Grinderman: “Grinderman 2”
Its title suggests a sequel, but Grinderman 2 is more of an origins story. This is seedy, seamy rawk that erupts from the loins of its creators– an orgiastic onslaught of sex, violence, and sleazy middle-aged riffing.
The actual origins of Grinderman 2, it seems, lie in spontaneous combustion– a head-on, on-the-spot collision of improvised mayhem and barely-roped-in chaos, of impulses both staggeringly hip and dismayingly tasteless. You can hear Miles Davis (circa On the Corner) in some of the rhythms, Queens of the Stone Age in some of the slack-jawed riffing. You can hear Sly Stone funk and Howlin’ Wolf primordial blues. You hear psychedelia, drone, the most vulgar kind of garage rock. Mostly, you hear noise: Even more than its forebearer, 2 equates ecstasy with sheer volume, finding primal pleasure in out-and-out, in-the-red noise. The opening one-two combo of “Micky Mouse and the Goodbye Man” and “Worm Tamer” form a crude, unholy union of ear-bleeding, explosive violence; taken together, and in terms of sheer sonic assault, they’re the most epic Nick Cave music since “The Mercy Seat.”
You can talk about the music in terms of its influences, but it makes more sense to talk about it in terms of the way it moves. In that sense, though the music’s strange sensuality may come from multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis and his limitless supply of sawing violins and electric bouzoukis, the sheer physicality of this stuff comes from Jim Sclavunos, the drummer who seems to give the album is primitive, sexual thrust. He charges through the ever-escalating tempo of “Micky Mouse,” a nasty proto-punk slow-build, and brings malignant, death-metal ferocity to “Evil!” He gives a queasy, stoned thump to “Kitchenette,” a feverish slink to “Heathen Child,” a hypnotic anchor to the swirling “When My Baby Comes.” And then he drops out almost altogether for “What I Know,” its near-ambience seeming to float above everything else here.
The bump and grind of this stuff seems instinctive; there’s an animal-like spontaneity to it that makes it seem as though the Grindermen are simply giving in to their most base inner selves. But I don’t think that’s entirely true: Granted, the Grinderman umbrella has provided a sort of shelter for Cave and three of his Bad Seeds to do something a little more loose and primal than what they do with their full unit, and that looseness has spilled over into the regular gig, as well; Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!— so far the only post-Grinderman Bad Seeds record– was a howling good time, nasty and sexy and irreverent like no Bad Seeds record in a long time, and in a good many ways Grinderman 2 feels more like a sequel to that album than to the first Grinderman.
And yet, I would suggest that, if the album’s coal-black heart and filthy mind were born of its improvisational roots, its ultimate vision and structure were probably formed by Cave and producer Nick Launay (who also put the life into Lazarus) in the editing room– and that it’s neither as tossed-off nor as depraved as it first seems, its lupine ferocity and utter sonic decadence notwithstanding. There’s a real form to it, a sense of structure that suggests its nine-song duration is not because the band ran out of ideas before hitting a nice even ten, but because it’s a completed composition, a full-bodied statement with a definite beginning and end. “Micky Mouse and the Goodbye Man” feels like a black comedy until you realize how utterly serious it is; it’s a theme-setting, thesis-giving introduction to the rest of the album, a tale of two brothers that seems to take us to the very cradle of sex and terrorism, suggesting that the two are outgrowths of the same, most basic desires.
The flame of unchecked desire burns a big black hole clean through this record, and it’s generally less a lighthouse or a beacon than it is plain-and-simple arson. In “Worm Tamer,” it’s burned even love until it’s left black and charred; Cave rattles off sexual innuendos in a loose, Howlin’ Wolf narrative, and come-ons have never sounded so bleakly menacing or nasty. “Heathen Child,” though, is outright threatening. Cave plays a sneering, gleefully sordid lecher who casually spouts blasphemy as he circles his filthy lover; but when you come to a line like “you thought your government would protect you? You were wrong,” it’s clear that we’ve crossed from one kind of animal-like savagery to another.
Cave’s lyrics are peppered with men who know what they want and get what they want. Beneath its madcap cacophony, “Evil!” finds the narrator shouting himself hoarse trying to woo his lady; and while “I don’t need the stars, you are the stars!” might sound romantic on paper, what does one do with the ominous rise of the song’s titular refrain? Do predators, terrorists, evil men really start out so innocently as this? And what, indeed, does one do with “Palaces of Montezuma”– at first blush a love song as sweet and pure as any Cave has penned, and worthy of a man who wrote “Breathless.” Here, too, though, the singer’s noble intentions mask something sinister and decrepit lurking at the edges, desire giving way to imbalance, everything seeming to spin ominously out of control toward the song’s conclusion.
The Grinderman albums have both, it seems, been about misdirection: Blatant sex hides mid-age anxieties, noise cloaks melody, and, in “Kitchenette,” biting humor diverts attention from what is in fact a lethally serious focus on the crisis of modern marriage and family. Everything surrounding it employs much the same trick: The sheer lurid nature of the songwriting is shocking, but the shock is a buffer, for the real concerns of the album are not only serious, but frighteningly so. By the way: I should note that there are some sublime harmony vocals on “Palaces of Montezuma,” and that “Heathen Child” conjures some sounds that are, on a pure sonic level, true sensual delights. Beneath the ugly aggression, there’s beauty, there’s form, there’s craft. Put everything together and it’s bloody brilliant– dangerous rock and roll for those who prefer to laugh through their despair, and who know that the primal stuff can’t be ignored, no matter how depraved it may be.