The arc of Nick Cave’s long and twisting career has taken the Australian performer from being one of post-punk’s most villainous geniuses to a poetic, introspective balladeer, all under the general guise of rock music. Yet the brand of rock music that Cave has performed over the years has very frequently been mangled and mutilated, from the gothic blues of the Bad Seeds to the deranged post-punk of The Birthday Party. In 2007, however, Cave and a wooly group of musicians comprising Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos put aside the art-house tendencies, poetry and complex arrangements to deliver a big, bad set of raw and raunchy rock music as Grinderman. And it was good, really good, but more than that, it was exceptionally fun. Cave, a 50-something troubadour, was bashing out nasty Stooges-like anthems and bellowing about being cockblocked, which turned out to be just as awesome and hilarious as that sounds on paper.
One of the key elements that made Grinderman’s debut so appealing, though, was its spontaneous, drunken sound. It sounded less like the work of disciplined careerists as the bottled lightning from a session of studio destruction wreaked by these four old-enough-to-know-better but too-old-to-care troublemakers. Grinderman wasn’t meant to leave a legacy, just a lascivious trail of destruction and sin. The problem with that is nobody bothered to tell Grinderman.
Three years after the din of their incredible debut, Cave, Ellis, Casey and Sclavunos have re-emerged a bit sharper, a tad more sober, and just as loud as before. Their second album, simply titled Grinderman 2, retains the reckless rock ‘n’ roll menace of their debut, but with a more meticulous, cleaned up sound thanks to producer Nick Launay. Yet the cleaner production only puts a finer point on just how beastly and distorted each instrument sounds, which, on a song like “Evil,” threatens to blow out one’s speakers, if not the group’s own amplifiers.
Much as the predatory wolf on the album’s cover suggests, the not-so-gentle men in Grinderman haven’t softened a bit in the last three years. However, they have opened up their sound considerably, veering off the path of blistering rock ‘n’ roll to take on mutant blues (“Kitchenette”), psychedelic rock (“When My Baby Comes”) and even unexpectedly upbeat pop (“Palaces of Montezuma”). The sheer variety throughout the album draws Grinderman closer to the vast sonics of The Bad Seeds’ past ten years, yet there’s a bold experimentalism that runs throughout that, even for someone who evolves with such startling frequency, makes this one of Cave’s most outstanding releases. Leadoff track “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” grooves like a lit fuse, slowly burning toward its massive sonic detonation. Just two tracks later, first single “Heathen Child” proves one of the most inexplicably accessible tracks on the album. It throbs like Suicide beat poetry, an odd choice for a single, but one corker of a song regardless. And closer “Bellringer Blues” takes off into cosmic freakout territory, with its backward effects and dense production making for an awesome space rock effect.
As a lyricist, however, Cave remains as hilarious and irreverent as ever. The aforementioned “Heathen Child” is a badass ode to a female menace. Nick runs through his typical tropes of sex and religion, as the titular character soaks in the bathtub after renouncing all deities and amassing an arsenal, reaching a climax as Cave sneers, “You think your children will protect you?/ you are wrong/ you think your government will protect you?/ you are wrong.” Elsewhere, he taps into his most lecherous urges on “Kitchenette,” crooning weirdly sexual lines like “I stick my fingers in your biscuit jar/ and crush all your gingerbread men.” On “Palaces of Montezuma,” however, he merely lays out a long list of sacrificial offerings from Miles Davis and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen.
Still deliciously fucked up, loud and obnoxious, Grinderman are giving rock ‘n’ roll a much-needed jolt to the keister. With Grinderman 2, they merely issue that electrification via more stylish and expansive means, bashing out an album that not only rocks with an unholy fury, but delivers an expansive, engrossing and complete sonic experience.
Video: “Heathen Child”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.