Grinderman 2 (Music Review)

Album cover: Grinderman 2 by Grinderman

Grinderman - Grinderman 2

When Nick Cave released 2008’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig! under his own name only a few months after debuting the Grinderman side project, it was easy to wonder if there was a difference between his two bands. While Grinderman sounded distinct from the albums previously released as “Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds”, most of the new sound showed up again on Lazarus. Was Grinderman a separate band in its own right, or just a byproduct of Nick Cave’s evolution?

Now that Grinderman 2 has been released, it’s easier to see what makes this band distinct. While this may be a fairly straightforward refinement of the debut album’s sound, I would argue that this is the first true Grinderman album.

Grinderman is at its heart a low-budget garage band. Its angry, sludgy rock is a sharp contrast to the self-aware 1970’s and 1980’s retreads that dominate modern rock. Interestingly, the music frequently even threatens to overwhelm the vocals. In fact, on my first listen, I found myself wondering whether someone else would actually be a better singer for this album.  A thought like that would be heretical on a Nick Cave album, where every song feels intensely personal, and The Bad Seeds exist solely to emphasize the vision of the lyrics. Nick Cave may take on unique personas in different songs, but it’s obvious that there is a consistent person behind them all, using songwriting as a way to examine and then exorcise his personal demons.

With Grinderman, it seems almost as if Cave has created a separate persona to act as the song-writer. Song after song clearly comes from a bitter, directionless man whose mid-life crisis has gone unresolved and metastasized. With no way to deal with this angst, he just rails about the state of the world and demands that women sleep with him. The cover image, a snarling wolf stalking through a clean suburban home, is an unsubtle metaphor for the narrator’s self-image. However, it may be even more apt than the narrator intends: Just as the wolf is going to be limited by its lack of intelligence and opposable thumbs, so this unnamed “grinderman” is blinded by his anger and selfishness. Consider these lyrics from “Kitchenette”:

What’s this husband of yours ever given to you?
Oprah Winfrey on a plasma screen
And a brood of jug-eared buck-toothed imbeciles
The ugliest fucking kids I’ve ever seen!
Oh baby, I want you.

Whether or not this is an accurate criticism of modern life, it’s about the worst pick-up line imaginable. Yet it’s positively subtle after the previous song, “Evil”, in which the singer tells a woman to leave her children to be discarded and pay attention to him, while deranged back-up singers repeatedly shout the song title.

But as ridiculous as this protagonist may be, he can write excellent songs. Growling guitars and a primal drum beat drive the listener through every track, inescapably building to some promised climax. Whether it’s the calm threat of apocalypse on “Heathen Child” or the screamed ending of the title track (so strange and cathartic that it justifies the name “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”), that climax turns out to be less of a release than a prelude to another mesmerizing build-up. Where The Bad Seeds drew their songs’ power from Nick Cave’s demons, Grinderman finds just as much potential in rock music itself.

At least, all of this is true for the first 7 songs on this 9-track album. Possibly hedging its bets, Grinderman 2 closed with a return to the feel of a typical Nick Cave album. “Palaces of Montezuma” is a crooning ballad, in which Cave promises extravagant gifts and undying love to his woman, with a tenderness that would be foreign in the other Grinderman songs. Even the lyrical structure, listing items that range from the mundane to the fantastical, is a familiar tool of Cave’s. The final song, “Bellringer Blues”, could arguably fit with either Grinderman or The Bad Seeds. The wave of noise is comfortable in this album, but the way that it elevates Cave’s voice to the forefront of our attention is reminiscent of The Bad Seeds. I would argue that the lyrics (which seem to be rejecting the Bible as a comforting but ultimately damaging choice) fit in better with the conscience that Nick Cave displays under his own name – but since the first Grinderman album ended on the same theme, time could prove me wrong on this.

Regardless, those last two songs are both excellent (especially “Palaces of Montezuma”), and they do add variety to the album. I hope to see future Grinderman albums take the final steps to establish this band as separate from Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, but there’s no denying that this is an outstanding album on its own. If this exercise helps to focus Cave on making great, distinct music with two separate bands, then that’s just an added bonus.

Grade: A

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  1. I know, it seems suspicious when I hand out an A immediately on my first review. I really just listened to this for the first time a couple weeks ago, expecting that it would make a good initial article. Based on the first Grinderman album, I was expecting a solid B review. What can I say? This exceeded my expectations.

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