It’s now over 25 years since the Birthday Party, possibly the most riotous assembly that Australia has yet produced, splintered under the weight of its own excesses. The subsequent trajectory of Nick Cave, the Party’s frontperson, is well known – leading the Bad Seeds, Cave is commonly recognized as an heir to a literary tradition of musicianship led by Dylan, Cohen and Cash – and his new work with Grinderman retains all the creative power to delight and energize.
Named after a Memphis Slim line, the Grinderman quartet – a slimmed-down Bad Seeds featuring Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos – is a début that opens up many new lines of enquiry. Outbursts on Cave’s last studio album, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus indicated that singer’s interest in new formats, and Grinderman benefits. While Cave is to the fore, the gravity lent by his co-Grinders is influential. Percussionist Sclavunos gets a chance to show off his Greek rembetika interests on ‘Electric Alice’, while the electronic textures that Cave has been doing on side-projects with violinist Ellis, are put to good use on ‘When My Love Comes Down’. Rawer than Cave’s recent work – a line-up reconfiguration which has the singer on guitar helps – Grinderman thrives on its rough edges. ‘Get It On’ and (ahem) ‘No Pussy Blues’ are rampages, the latter full of Cave’s best black humour: ‘ I bought her every type of flower/ I played her guitar by the hour/ I patted her revolting Chihuahua…’ If these songs are bluesy affairs, ‘Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)’ is an adrenaline rush: guitar, organ, utterly compelling. But Cave being Cave, the sad songs never go away. ‘Man in the Moon’, slow and short, ranks among the most beautiful and sonorous songs he has ever written. Grinderman is a band of four parts, but this song is Cave at his superlative best.