Nick Cave is rock ‘n’ roll’s Clint Eastwood. Like Eastwood, Cave has spent the better years of his adult life exploring the darkest, most dangerous side of his medium and developing an impervious badass reputation. And Cave’s deceptively literate sensibility has benefitted his mid- to late age unlike most anyone would expect, refining what made him so scary in the first place into something so meaningful.
When Cave cleaned out his pigfuck closet with Grinderman’s debut, there was a sense that badassery in indie rock was going to come back, that rock ‘n’ roll was safe, that life was gonna be a little bit better. Three years later, when that dream has proven to be about as dubious as hope for bipartisanship, it’d be easy to have expected Cave to ratchet up his venomous armor and make as nasty an album as he’s ever made with Grinderman 2 (as the album’s marketing campaign would have you believe). But Cave has gone somewhere else: to a more atmospheric place that resembles less his more compositional, pre-Grinderman work and more a purification of his pigfuck side to its top-shelf distillation. If Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was Cave’s Unforgiven-style turn at putting what he does best in cleaned-up neon lights, Grinderman 2 sees Cave enter Mystic River/Million Dollar Baby territory, turning the darkness that made his youthful self so compelling into something more meaningful, tragic, and perhaps eternal than anything he’s done previously.
Grinderman 2 is a grower, a full front-to-back album, and sounds like the closest to Springsteen-level empowerment that Cave will ever let himself get. It also grooves more than most anything in Cave’s catalog, which gives it the endurance and subtle brilliance that Cave, whose bread and butter has been cathartic spikes, has never gone to before. The result is an album that stretches the impact of Cave’s past into a richer emotional tapestry without losing any of the vivacity that we’ve come to expect.
No doubt some of Cave’s pigfuck diehards will be as resistant after first listen as rock pacifists have been to Cave altogether. But Cave’s been always been smarter than he seems, and a quick glance at the lyric sheet shows subtler-than-they-should-be allusions to incest and rape in “Mickey Mouse and The Goodbye Man” (mixed between some wolf howling), only to be followed by “Worm Tamer,” a woman who “leaves me every night and who could blame her/ I guess I’ve loved her for too long.” There’s the criticisms of music culture that’ve characterized his recent work “Is there anyone out there wasted their lives?” Long obsessed with biblical imagery, Cave’s now integrated elements of at least thee other religions in what is an effective display of how soul, mystery, and emotional strain knows no religion. It’s also the closest to a clear autobiographical sketch Cave will probably ever give us.
And of course, the cathartic spikes are still there, hidden behind the album-wide sway. “Heathen Child” is one of the better singles of the year, though in Grinderman 2 context it sounds like just a nugde up. “Evil!” shows Cave cleary bearing the weight of his reputation and role in rock, and while it’s harder than most else here, it’s a more complex, melancholy mix of guitar, drums, and buzzing strings than you’d ever expect if you judge the album by its cover. After a few listens, the album regains the snarl, and you start to realize you have something special on your hands.
Cave’s always played from his heart, and emotional gravity or bile has never been difficult for him, but for this kind of soulful, heartfelt music, the kind that results in songs that make you weep, to come from the Pied Piper of Punk may be one of the more uplifting surprises you’ll see in rock music anytime soon. If this isn’t an instant classic, it’s only because it takes some time (and ears) to appreciate.