After the release of his 1996 album ‘Murder Ballads’, the almost unthinkable happened to Nick Cave. The one-time wild frontman of confrontational Aussie goth-punks The Birthday Party had become a well respected performer and songwriter and, no doubt thanks to an unlikely duet with Kylie Minogue, a household name. With his post-Birthday Party band The Bad Seeds, Cave had often created albums full of dark storytelling and sometimes macabre beauty, but ‘Murder Ballads’ propelled Cave’s career into heights that few thought his extreme approach to song writing would ever take him. From that point on, every Bad Seeds album has been a gem; each one containing a combination of beautiful melancholy and multi-layered adult rock which is almost unique.
In 2006, looking to write the follow up to The Bad Seeds double set ‘Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus’, Cave began jamming with a few of his Bad Seeds bandmates. With Cave taking up guitar as opposed to his usual piano, the results were edgy, a little unhinged and possibly showed the most aggression since Cave’s Birthday Party days. They decided that the improvised, grinding jams just weren’t right for The Bad Seeds, yet the results were too exciting to leave behind. And so, Grinderman was born. Their 2007 self-titled album was thrilling, if slightly unsettling. With themes of sexuality abound, the album was the sound of a mid-life crisis (most notably on the second single ‘No Pussy Blues’), with Grinderman’s guttural instincts and sometimes simplistic approach exciting fans and the press alike. Grinderman, in a sense, was a release of tension and anger for Cave and his cohorts, since, for some time, the Bad Seeds albums had become increasingly lavish affairs. In some ways, Grinderman typified a one-shot deal – one album and back to the next award winning Bad Seeds project. Indeed, after touring the Grinderman album, Cave, drummer Jim Sclavunos, bassist Martyn P Casey and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis returned to the relative safety of their beloved Bad Seeds and created ‘Dig, Lazarus, Dig!’, which critics claimed was one of the finest albums of their career. In the summer of 2010, Grinderman returned.
Their second album, ‘Grinderman 2’, may have been created with a similar jamming-in-the-studio vibe, with no material pre-written before their arrival, but this time around, there’s far less of a ramshackle approach. More blues grooves, fewer garage rock assaults. This is probably because Cave and co approach Grinderman’s second outing with a pre-conceived idea of what Grinderman is, but possibly because attempting to out-do that first album would surely have been a mistake. At just under three minutes, ‘Evil’ re-visits the anger of the first Grinderman disc. Amid Sclavunos’s pounding drums and the repeated backing vocal shout of “evil…evil rising”, Cave delivers his stream-of-consciousness lyrical concerns with an intensity rarely heard since his Birthday Party days. As he belts out lines like ‘Who needs a record player? YOU ARE MY RECORD PLAYER!’, as a listener you become aware that when their most extreme, Grinderman could implode at any second; although unlike the previous Grinderman release, the intensity and anger is balanced out by a greater use of humour. That humour is often dry (as evidenced throughout most of Cave’s career) but also occasionally base and childish. Loaded with thinly veiled penis references, and undoubtedly ‘Grinderman 2’s answer to ‘No Pussy Blues’, ‘Worm Tamer’ is a shuffling number which presents itself like an ugly, learing cousin of Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’. This is then given intensity by Cave adopting his signature sneer, but the real Grinderman signature quality comes from the distorted bursts of noise, which could come from Cave’s angular guitar work, but are just as likely to have been created by Warren Ellis skulking somewhere, mistreating his electric bouzouki. While penis references are childish, you’ve got to smile when Cave delivers the line: “My baby calls me the Loch Ness monster…two great big humps and then I’m gone”. As with the first Grinderman disc, the themes of sexuality and lust figure highly on the radar, although usually with a tongue-in-cheek sneer.
‘Kitchenette’ features another blatant example of Cave’s humour, as he tries to win over a woman by reminding her that her husband leaves his false teeth and glass eye out and the best thing he’s ever given her is “Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen”. Kitchenette is lucky to feature some of the album’s funniest lyrics, and when coupled with a bluesy drone, it’s a great example of Grinderman’s power to amuse and threaten in almost equal measure. ‘Mickey Mouse and The Goodbye Man’ is one of Martyn Casey’s greatest musical moment. During the verses, his simple, circular bass line is upfront with only gentle drum accompaniment and Cave’s dark vocal for company. As the verse pulls to a close, Cave hammers out distorted garage riffs on his guitar, given extra brilliance by the addition of ugly soloing with a fuzz-pedal. During the noisy parts, Grinderman are at full pelt, with their distorted brand of garage-blues an unstoppable force (given extra animalistic qualities by Cave’s higher notes resembling howling), but even so, the band are so much tighter than they had been on their debut.
The album’s first single ‘Heathen Child’ is classic. Shaking tambourines, punctuated by distorted guitar squalls provide a decent musical base, Cave’s lyrics name-check various gods, but just as interestingly, the abominable snowman appears for the second time on the album. This lends some weight to the band’s claim that the album’s songs are interlinked in some way (though with regard to revealing any details, they remain tight-lipped). Echoes of the noisy garage-blues duo The Black Keys can be heard throughout, but the track’s most striking feature are the distorted notes at the end – likely made by Ellis on his electric bouzouki. ‘What I Know’ has a spooky emptiness with Cave’s voice featured against some bells and scraping noises (undoubtedly the work of Ellis). It aims for spookiness in its starkness, but there’s so little happening, it ends up sounding lost amid the more interesting material.
With Cave accompanied by backing vocal oohs, and an altogether more lavish musical arrangement, ‘The Palace of Montezuma’ is somewhat surprising for Grinderman. The walls of guitar replaced by acoustic work, this could have been a Bad Seeds number. In terms of completeness and user-friendliness it’s one of the album’s best songs, but there’s something distinctly un-Grinderman about it. Until, that is, you look closer at its lyrical content. Whereby romance in the Bad Seeds’ universe may involve Cave crooning (and sometimes in a very traditional manner), here he attempts to prove his loyalty by offering a whole world of romantic promises – name-checking Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen on the way, the ridiculousness in the scenario arguably hitting its peak when he offers the woman in question “JFK’s spinal column, wrapped in Marilyn Monroe’s negligee”. In fact, although it’s never as obvious as it is during ‘Montezuma’, ‘Grinderman 2’ owes more to The Bad Seeds than their debut, partly through bits of it feeling less intense on the surface, but mostly due to its feeling like a complete work. Once again, though, most of the lyrics are far less poetic than any post-94 Bad Seeds work; but for Cave to release all of his musical demons, like a devil on The Bad Seeds’ shoulder, Grinderman needs to exist. As he says himself “…we wanted to get back to something with a really malign feel to it”. And if that malign streak means the release of albums as good as this, the world could be a better place for that.