For the last three decades, Nick Cave – working as the front man of The Birthday Party and, most notably and most enduringly, The Bad Seeds – has occupied a spot in pop culture that no one else quite comes close to. Cave has the husky, sexy, gravelly voice of Tom Waits, the morbid, fatal awareness of Johnny Cash and the laugh-out-loud humour of Morrissey.
This heady mix is immeasurably compounded by Cave’s own quixotic, idiosyncratic melange of Bible references and sexual and sensual imagery. He’s a literary rock and roll star, a rock and roll intellectual; evoking the cerebral, the sexual and the physical, sometimes in the same song. Now well into his fifth decade of life, Cave’s star shows no signs of plateauing – the last five years have seen him script and score a highly acclaimed movie in The Proposition (a great, great film), release two highly acclaimed Bad Seeds albums (The Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, also great works) and put out his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro. The new album by his side-project Grinderman is another notch on the bedpost of his middle-aged career.
The first Grinderman album felt like a great release for Cave. For the first time, Cave wrote songs on a guitar, and his more rudimentary playing of the instrument (as opposed to his instrument of choice, the piano) gave the album a raw and elemental feel. Lyrically, the album was a departure from the regular output of The Bad Seeds, in that it felt looser and less ornate, and more quick and dirty, in the best possible way.
Having said that, all of the members of Grinderman come from The Bad Seeds, so the album is not a seismic shift from Cave’s day job; to put it bluntly, it sounded like four guys from a band having fun with something else.
With the follow-up record, there is a definite furrowing of the brow and rolling up of the collective sleeves – it now feels like Cave and his compatriots are realising the potential of Grinderman, and that it deserves as much attention as a Bad Seeds album.
And it shows. While the sense of fun is still present, both musically and lyrically (one song contains the line “Well, my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster/Two great big humps and then I’m gone”. Genius) the album is much more expansive than the first Grinderman effort. It’s all very well and good to hear a living legend having fun on a record with no pressure and no strings attached in the form of extensive touring and/or promotion, it’s even more of a joy to hear a brilliantly-talented artist open up another avenue of possibility in their creative capability.
The guitar effect on “Worm Tamer” adds another layer of smooth sound to an otherwise quick-and-dirty rocker, and the penultimate track “Palaces of Montezuma,” with its emphasis on Cave’s piano playing, is a welcome addition to an otherwise-guitar based record.
Paradoxically, however, it’s the song that is least in keeping with the first Grinderman album that’s the crowning point of this record: “When My Baby Comes” is, by turns, a beautiful, haunting, creepy and plaintive song that explodes into life with a now-trademark Grinderman crunching wall of noise two-thirds through.
That Grinderman have a trademark sound after two short records is some achievement, even by the standards of Nick Cave. Until the next movie, or novel, or record, Grinderman 2 will keep you more than occupied.