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Artist: Grinderman

Album: Grinderman

Label: Anti-

Review date: Mar. 29, 2007

As rock-basher Woody Allen illustrated when he had Shelley Duvall recite lexis from “Just Like a Woman,” rock lyrics ain’t poetry. Rock and literature can exist in awkward symbiosis (often to rock’s enrichment, and usually to literature’s detriment), but they’re different games, for a lot of solid reasons. Short of premature death, the easiest way for a veteran rocker to become a caricature is by posing as a man or woman of letters while remaining fully beholden to rock hubris and gusto. It’s not that there’s no subtlety in rock, but books and ballads have different languages for it, and being famous doesn’t make one bilingual.

So where does that leave Nick Cave, one of the few rock musicians with serious real estate in either territory? Cave was an avid bookworm before the Birthday Party broke, and has absorbed various literary devices (the gruesome suspension of Poe, the conflicted religious imagery of Blake, the actual text of Milton) to the extent that they blend easily into his music. There isn’t any Cave aesthetic without a bibliography. He also writes moving, reflective essays and even published a respectable novel in his own frantic, hallucinatory vernacular. His last few records with the Bad Seeds, while more conservative than his earlier work, have cast long, dark mythological shadows, couching solemn mortal reflections in straightforward torch songs. Surely, he was about to hit the cerebral glass ceiling, or soar out into a pretentious, exclusive neverland… or lose his cool and vomit something like The Raven.

Instead, he decided to teach himself guitar, something a lot of much dumber people with musical aspirations do in their early teens. With a few trusted allies (Warren Ellis of Dirty Three, Jim Sclavunos of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Martin Casey of the Triffids), he formed a new band - new because the assembled here make a point of behaving like hungry amateurs. While recent Bad Seeds outings have skewed prohibitively cryptic, Grinderman is as refreshing, bracing and absurd as the Birthday Party were when they blew onto the scene with their Old Testament zeal.

On Grinderman, Cave is as prone as ever to morbid exaggeration, but he gives it over entirely to id-driven brutality. He doesn’t care what the corpse looks like, or what its name was – he’s had a bad day, and he just wants to kill someone. As it happens, most of these narrators seem to have felt pretty rotten for a long time, just now exploding with the force of half a lifetime’s failed passive-aggression. Hence the already-noted “midlife crisis” motif, complete with outrageous misogyny (“Go Tell the Woman”) and projected, sexualized self-loathing (“No Pussy Blues,” in which our protag, despite his lumbering anxiety, still tries to school his won’t-be fuck-buddy in Yates appreciation).

When these fellows suffer love, they don’t feel the consecrated devotion of The Boatman’s Call. They don’t even know that well enough to mock it. They feel the cataclysmic fervor of the fresh cult convert (“Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars),” “Depth Charge Ethel”… one song is actually called “Love Bomb.”)

Musically, it’s a sloppy, Stoogey concern, given some dignity by the violin’s lingering motifs and occasional shrieks of liberation. Lyrically, it’s Cave’s richest comic creation to date, made possible not through “self-parody” or self-conscious nostalgia, but through sabotaging his own most ingrained habits with the same passion it took to cultivate them. Yes, it’s got a “tossed-off” thing going, but that very quality may yet make it his most durable disc since Let Love In… and it’s got a lot more chuckles than that one.

By Emerson Dameron

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