On Second Thought
The Birthday Party - Junkyard






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

No matter how hard we try, either as vinyl-collector omnivores or as somewhat more limited musical aesthetes, there will remain certain artists who we may have read tons of articles about but about whom we’ll always remain a bit clueless. David Byrne, for example, had soaked up all the NME’s coverage of Joy Division without actually hearing them when he and Eno created “The Overload” from Remain In Light in what he imagined was the band’s image; by the time he finally heard Closer, he felt fairly let down. My mind’s amassed tons of critical encomium for the Mekons, yet I still can’t decide whether I should pick up an album of theirs whenever I see it in the used bin of my local record shop. Patti Smith remains a cipher to me and so does Nick Cave, about whom, to quote Don DeLillo, everything I know could be written “with a blunt crayon on the rim of a shot glass.”

Sure, I hijacked a promo of Murder Ballads from my high school radio station and gave it away, along with a remaindered $2.99 Let Love In, after neither seemed to make much of an impact on me. They seemed too mannered and theatrical, too diffuse, mostly; not at all what I’d imagined from reading about Nick Cave. My tenure as a perpetually black-clad and lank-haired high school mendicant was far from its end, and mournful crooning – along with most of the rest of the self-consciously morbid goth and self-important industrial clatter I’d been exposed to from a few unsavory outside influences – was not what I craved. I needed noise and depravity, not dour, scaly melancholy or late-period Siouxsie and the Banshees whimsy. And so it was that, thanks to another record-guide recommendation, that I came to hear Nick Cave’s first band, The Birthday Party. I loved it, but probably for all the wrong reasons. This shit made Marilyn Manson seem positively demure, for one.

Maybe it was this album that made me understand the essential split between “heavy” and “loud” music, usually loaded with all its empty signifiers of brute force and grandeur, and that which is truly powerful; the album opener, “Blast Off,” with its scathing guitar runs and careening bass riffs, miscellaneous shards of percussion, and Bo-Diddley-rotisseried-in-hell rhythms, was about as far as Ross Robinson’s productions as imaginable. It, along with some of the Nine Inch Nails remixes and of course Joy Division, could very well have blown my bleakness-obsessed adolescent mind wide open: here was music that was far more subtle and evocative and yet managed to be, yes, scary as hell.

I’m sure I’ve described at least a hundred records as “depraved” by now, but the slithering pulse of “She’s Hit”, as grotesquely seamy a blues as anyone could imagine, deserves a special honor for conjuring up some truly despicable images in its music and lyrics; one gets the feeling that Cave feels horny and would love to do something about it if only the music could stop hemorrhaging around him, if his mind and body could stop decaying. Deliberate and grim, punctuated by shocking bursts of wiry guitar and scrap-metal banging, the song is bested only in its depiction of outright psychosis by its counterpart, the album’s title track, an existential swimming-in-a-trash-heap drug nightmare that contains about six climaxes, ending before one really understands what’s hit them.

Less ambitious tracks abound, like “Dead Joe” – its simple thesis is to conjure up the feeling of a car crash, and does so in an admirably low-budget manner that outdoes Sonic Youth’s “In The Kingdom #19” – and the murderous jazz-swing of “The Dim Locator” and “6” Gold Blade,” but something always comes along (like the constricted-throat screaming and fierce guitar meltdown that occurs midway through the former with little warning) to raise them above standard fare. Plenty of bands have tried to conjure up horror, but what makes The Birthday Party succeed is their mixture of literate humor and sheer sonic excess: this reaches its apotheosis on the onslaught of “Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” and the unforgettable “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can,” an stream-of-consciousness epic poem of sacrilege that throws Christ, Elvis in his Vegas degeneracy, and the Caligulan excrescence of the Texas billionare into the same bloody, crude-oil-smeared dumpster to shocking effect. Some bleating jazz horn and overpowering drumming only sweetens the deal.

Elsewhere, we hear the band’s take on trashy hardcore with the pumped-up bass riff and hyperspeed turmoil of “Kiss Me Black”. What makes this song – as is the case with the entire album – so remarkable is that you often can’t tell exactly where all this hellacious noise is coming from. As on the second Velvets album, one receives the distinct sense that the band are fighting with each other for audibility; cymbal crash and palsied, trebly guitar scuzz bleed together. But what could be monochromatic, even dull, rises above the gristle and bone of its source. Somehow, what emerges on record is transcendent and captivating.


By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01
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