'Grinderman 2' - CD Review


From his wild days in the post-punk outfit The Birthday Party to long-running cult success with his band The Bad Seeds, Aussie artist Nick Cave has not only hung onto a macabre musical sensibility, but it seems to be getting darker, stranger and more cynical every year. Cave's latest side-trip into “primordial rock” known as Grinderman is not only gritty, creepy and seething with sexual malice, but it's rapidly becoming one the most successful projects in his long and interesting career.

This month, Cave and company have rolled out an even more bizarre, grim and dangerous-sounding album than their 2007 debut. The release was heralded by an incredible video campaign that comes off both sexy and terrifying – making the project look like a horror-themed rock opera co-directed by Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Damon Packard. Grinderman 2 has already climbed onto the US Top 40 (no pun intended) within the first two weeks of its release, making it the highest-charting of Nick's projects to date, so I'd say he's perfected his secret recipe for crispy, spicy evil... and it's high time we took a bite. Read on for a review and check out the bafflingly bizarre (and NSFW) video for the first single Heathen Child... here come da Wolfman!

When he formed Grinderman around four years ago, Cave retained most of his core musicians from The Bad Seeds, but with a slightly different objective – creating a rough and raunchy sound that's mean as hell and almost impossible to pin down to any single genre. This new approach was based mainly on guitar compositions, which went against Cave's usual keyboard-based songwriting style, but with a lot of the same atmospheric textures that characterize most of the Seeds' tunes.

The first album definitely made a strong impression (the album art featuring a photo of a crotch-grabbing monkey is very fitting), and was more reminiscent of the rough-and-ready Birthday Party days than the Seeds' gloom-and-doom. But for the second go-round, Cave seems to have thrown out the rulebook and pushed their sound down even stranger paths, tightening up the musical focus a bit while simultaneously opening up to experimentation – itself a very dangerous proposition, considering his darkly surreal tendencies and wicked sense of humor. The result: a sleazy sorcerer's brew of garage punk, dirty funk, prog-rock, blues, jazz, avant-noise and electronic noodling that might violently rewire parts of your brain whether you like it or not.

By now, the single Heathen Child is probably best known for a jaw-dropping video that manages to cram about thirty movies' worth of werewolves, naked voodoo vixens, laser-shooting eyeballs, J-horror hair extensions, severed heads and end-of-the-world footage into a mere five minutes – and I haven't even mentioned the freak-dancin' Roman centurions and the atom-bomb-farting titan... damn, that's probably the only time I'll write that particular arrangement of words. But seriously kids, all that stuff and much more is in here... and like I said, it's not exactly work-safe.

I'm sure you need a few minutes to recover from that one, so take all the time you need. Ready to continue? Great.

That single is probably the closest this album gets to the musical mainstream, but that's really not a problem.... as long as you're open to the furniture-destroying sonic orgy that is the bulk of Grinderman 2. As with the previous record, there's a jam-session feel to these tracks that makes the overall groove more spontaneous and exciting – the bass-driven opening cut Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man doesn't begin the album as much as dump it in your lap like boiling coffee – and the sweaty sexual brutality of Cave's twisted lyrics makes the whole adventure feel a lot more dangerous... and damn funny. I mean, how can you not dig this line from the lurching sex-joke epic Worm Tamer, which wraps its perversity in monster-movie imagery: “My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster... two great big humps and then I'm gone.”

The seduction begins more subtle (and very Seeds-like) in the moody, far-reaching folk epic When My Baby Comes... but before the song's over it's practically exploding from the speakers in a burst of chaotic percussion, even after you realize what horrific tale the protagonist is recounting (hint: he's not going to be sitting down anytime soon). Cave takes on the role of a randy housewife-seducer in Kitchenette, and uses his nastiest blues-croak to make his intentions known (“I'll stick my fingers in your biscuit jar and crush all your gingerbread men”), backed by screeching feedback and a pelvis-thrusting bass line.

The only break from the horny chaos is the pensive, twitchy acoustic guitar-driven piece What I Know, which feels like a hallucinatory and bitter meditation on life and death. But it's soon followed by the aptly-named track Evil! which feels like a bizarre hybrid of Stooges, early Brian Eno and David Bowie – it doesn't mesh perfectly, but it's crazy fun anyway. Flashback-filled nostalgia seeps into Palaces of Montezuma, reminding us with its references to Steve McQueen, Marilyn Monroe and JFK that ol' Nick's been around and seen it all. Bellringer Blues closes out the album in a massive, earth-shaking psychedelic haze that comes from layer upon layer of mangled, choked and reverb-soaked guitars, leaving you with a strange feeling of unresolved tension that might cause you to head right back to track one and start the whole damn thing over again just to sort out what the hell happened.

You've probably figured out by now that Grinderman 2 isn't what you'd call a “safe listen” – there are mean, hairy, lust-filled monsters stalking through all nine of these tracks, but thanks to Cave's brilliant way with words (it's no surprise he's had success lately as an author and screenwriter), each of these predatory beasts has an interesting story to tell. I'm pretty sure you'll have a good time all around, just don't turn your back on this kind of sound. I mean, who knows exactly what music like this is capable of?