November 19, 2010

Grinderman: The Real Animal Collective

Pt 1: The (Artistic) Death

Watching Nick Cave and his cohorts in Grinderman light up the Best Buy (formerly Nokia) Theatre in Manhattan last Sunday evening, it seemed hard to believe that around seven years previous, I’d almost entirely written Cave off.

I’d been an ardent Cave believer from his time in the seminal goth-punk outfit The Birthday Party onwards, and had seen so many of his solo concert stops -- in Detroit, Toronto, Montreal– that I had even become quite friendly with the nice Australian girl who sold Cave merch on every tour.

However, around the time of the worst Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album in his long career, 2003’s dire Nocturama, things were falling apart.

The album was “product” in the sense that it didn’t seem necessary at all – Cave had become a prisoner of the writing process that he’d used successfully in the past, and had produced, to the horror of his fans, a generic "Nick Cave album."

Apparently others in Cave’s camp felt the way I did: long-time collaborator (and former Cave smack buddy) Blixa Bargeld (pictured with Cave, below) took a walk after the album came out and didn’t even do the promotional tour, which just about said it all.

 The Blixa-less tour stop in Toronto turned out to be the first and only time I’ve ever walked out of a Nick Cave concert.  The band was out of tune, and the pacing was horrible, with sub-Leonard Cohen piano ballads constantly interrupting whatever momentum the Bad
Seeds managed to create.  Cave seemed lost without his onstage foil Bargeld, and his relationship with his other main collaborator, Mick Harvey -- who'd been with Cave since his early days in The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party back in Australia -- we would find out later had also begun to unravel, as the two men grew apart.

Cave seemed to be trying to shoehorn himself into an artistic persona for which he wasn't entirely suited: he'd embraced Cohen as the example of how to grow older in the musical realm and stay relevant, but for him, it wasn't working.  He's bracketed too many of his other formative influences, like Iggy and The Stooges, out of his current "Nick Cave" (tm) incarnation.

As I exited the Nocturama show early, in my mind, I'd already written Nick Cave off.  He's stayed inspired longer than most of them, I told myself -- this was bound to happen at some point, and now it had. 

However, contained within the "seeds" of Cave’s artistic demise was the key to his eventual resurrection.

Warren Ellis, the creative force behind and leader of Aussie instrumental trio The Dirty Three, had appeared on the Nocturama album and the tour, but his contributions were limited to some violin touches here and there. 

But Cave, after depending on Bargeld and Harvey for so many years, was desperately in need of a new collaborator who could shake up his way of doing things and help him reconnect to the primal essence that animated The Birthday Party and his best solo material, and Ellis would turn out to be that person.

2004’s Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus double album was a mixed bag, marking the end of the Cave/Harvey partnership on a record with no writing credits for Harvey at all.  As with most double albums, there was too much bloat and still too many damn piano ballads here, but tellingly, the best songs, “Abbatoir Blues” and “Let The Bells Ring,” for instance, were Cave / Ellis compositions. 

Cave was starting to trust Ellis as a full creative partner, and tellingly, Harvey would leave the Bad Seeds as soon as touring obligations for the record were over.

(Tune in tomorrow for Pt. 2: The Resurrection)

--Johnny Walker (Black) 

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