In the rush to cover the constant waves of new music, we all too often neglect discussing the releases that leave the most substantial impressions in our lives. As such, we recently invited some bands and artists to wax poetic about an album that was deeply impactful or influential to them, either musically or personally.
The next guest in line to graciously offer a retrospective in this series is Duncan Evans, who creates dark folk/post-punk under his own name, and apocalyptic noise poetry (which we premiered here!) under the Moonlow moniker. He's a producer, an engineer, a writer at Ghost Cult and Alternative Control, and, lest it be forgot, has a twitter you should probably follow. Beyond these current projects, he was previously the guitarist for Forest Of Stars--so, all told, cred certified many times over, amiright? Without further ado: enjoy this retrospective!
Written by: Duncan Evans
This album was my first proper introduction to Nick Cave. It remains an incredibly important piece in the jigsaw of my own development as an artist and as a human being. I also believe it is significant in a wider cultural sense.
Around the mid-2000s, Nick Cave had seemingly grown tired of producing records with the expanded 8-piece lineup of The Bad Seeds: “It felt like every time I took a song into the Bad Seeds, everyone piled in on it. In the Bad Seeds, you play a song, and everyone's grabbing a fuckin' maraca, y'know?" In response, Cave and three Bad Seeds members (Warren Ellis, Martin P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos) formed Grinderman. At the same time, I was growing weary of the virtuoso prog rock I had been listening to. I had listened to a few of Cave’s songs and I had meant to properly explore his work for a while. I remember reading about Grinderman in the music press just before its release, and I thought this was probably as good a place as any to start. I ordered a copy and, strangely, two of them landed on the doormat a week later. Hearing this record on its release in 2007 was something of a Damascene moment for me. It opened up doors which remain unclosed. What follows is an explanation of how this album impacted me so deeply, and why I think it matters in wider terms.
Grinderman is a perfect marriage of the high-brow with the low-brow. It is unapologetically irreverent, noisy and visceral, yet it is anything but dumb. Lyrics aside, which we’ll get to shortly, the sound of the music itself is much more sophisticated than its unpolished surface might initially reveal. There are references to punk, 60's psychedelia, garage rock, blues, and even progressive rock, all of which display an assured consciousness and understanding of rock ‘n’ roll history. Yes, Nick Cave, who usually prefers the piano, plays electric guitar here with an unrefined warts-and-all aggression, and, yes, the whole thing sometimes feels like it’s about to fall apart in a joyful garage rock mess. But there are also myriad weird effects and unusual textures provided by multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, and there are tight, classy and eccentric grooves laid down by Casey (bass) and Sclavunos (drums).
This record showed me that older artists (in popular music terms at least--Cave turned 50 the year of Grinderman’s release) didn’t have to be doomed to either trade on former glories or to only produce “mellow” or “dignified” music. Grinderman were middle-aged and didn’t pretend otherwise, but produced a record more defiantly outrageous and blood-pumpingly exciting than most “alternative” bands seemed to be able to manage. In fact, they seemed to be actively channeling some of the frustrations of the ageing process into the raw power of the songs.
Lyrically, Cave took a different approach than usual here. Instead of isolating himself and working with the discipline of a classical poet, he came to the studio with nothing and formulated the words gradually through improvisation. The words have an unfiltered directness and are courageously open in their expressions (even if the meaning is sometimes cryptic). Album opener “Get It On” begins with a decisive and bold rant from Cave, who implores us to “Kick those white mice and baboons out / Kick those baboons and other motherfuckers out,” whatever that means. Often Cave seems to voice the words of somewhat unsavoury or damaged characters united by their middle-aged world-weariness and sexual frustration. Lyrics like “I went down to my baby's house / And I sat down on the step / Said 2000 years of Christian history baby / And you ain't learned to love me yet” exemplify this theme of perverse desperation and also hint at the humour which prevails throughout the whole record. Indeed, whilst the sense of humour is fundamental, it is actually used in many cases as a vehicle to get across ideas that make us as questions of society, of humanity and of ourselves. Some of the songs, such as “Man In The Moon,” are deeply poignant and sensitive. The latter tells of a father who “went away too soon” and is now “living on the moon.” The triumph of this album’s lyrics is in their ability to simultaneously shock, amuse and stimulate meaningful thought.
There is something deeply liberating about the Grinderman experience as exemplified by this album. It embraces contradictions. It laughs at its own ridiculousness but it is also brazen and proud. It pokes fun at human beings and at rock ‘n’ roll yet it radiates great reverence for both. It is pure and rudimentary but it is also deep and multifaceted. It is frivolous yet it is also deadly serious. It avoids categorisation but it sets a standard for how rock music can remain genuinely exhilarating and vital in the 21st century.
Grinderman - Self Titled was released 2007 via Mute (EU) and ANTI- (US)
Grinderman have a low profile, and can be found...at Nick Cave's official site, I guess?
Huge thanks to Duncan Evans for the fantastic writeup! Check him out at Moonlow, Duncan Evans, and Twitter.
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We provide thoughtful reviews of music that is heavy, gloomy...and loud enough to wake us from slumber. Written by a highfalutin peasantry!