THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: JUNKYARD (1982)
1) Blast Off; 2) She's Hit; 3) Dead Joe; 4) The Dim Locator; 5) Hamlet; 6) Several Sins; 7) Big-Jesus-Trash-Can; 8) Kiss Me Black; 9) 6" Gold Blade; 10) Kewpie Doll; 11) Junkyard; 12*) Dead Joe; 13*) Release The Bats.
This is a monster record if there ever was one. Okay, there was one: Fun House by the Stooges, released twelve years earlier. But in a whole twelve years, during which dozens of genres had come and gone, the world hadn't truly seen another monster record. Punk, post-punk, heavy metal, Goth, sheer sonic hooliganry Throbbing Gristle-style, the world had it all, but nothing really came close to the blazing, genuinely frightening musical hell of Fun House. Somebody had to match that achievement in the Eighties, and why are we not surprised that the «somebody» would be Mr. Nicholas Edward Cave from Australia?
The nightmarish fun begins already on the album sleeve — look at the picture closely and yes, this is more or less what the music sounds like. The color palette is a little too... colorful, perhaps (I'd rather see this in black and white), but other than that, the diversity of elements, their absurdity, their energized appearance, and their sheer ugliness, everything driven to hyperbolic heights, totally fits in with the songs, or, rather, the nightmarish rituals that The Birthday Party has chosen to perform. And I'm assuming that the album sleeve pictures their sacred altar.
Interestingly enough, the original LP, which only contained ten tracks, did not start with ʽBlast Off!ʼ — it was the B-side to a concurrent single. When the album was released on CD, however, the song was not simply tacked on as a bonus track (like its A-side, ʽRelease The Batsʼ, notable for being the «Goth»-est number released by the band and allegedly much favored by Bauhaus fans); instead, they put it on top as the album's flagman, for reasons so obvious that it is now hard for me to imagine how Junkyard would have ever fared without it. Briefly put, ʽBlast Off!ʼ is a loud and proud signal for that thingamabob on the album sleeve to... blast off. This is Captain Beefheart gone berserk, a flurry of avantgarde-influenced drum rolls, bass runs, and dissonant guitar shrieks, on top of which Crazy Captain Cave announces that the band is finally moving out. Prayers On Fire showed us the mustering of the forces inside the asylum; Junkyard flings the asylum doors open, and out pours the scary army of Lunacy, Epilepsy, and Maniac Behavior.
Viewed from that angle, the first side of Junkyard is pretty much flawless. Most of the tunes deal with violence and death; only one, ʽThe Dim Locatorʼ, focuses primarily on pure insanity as such — the melody can be traced all the way back to Kurt Weill, but the mood is «square root of Jim Morrison multiplied by Iggy Pop», and now they have this disgustingly dirty, swampy, lo-fi, echoey production, too, that makes it all sound like it was recorded in a particularly filthy sewer. One in which a zombie-faced Nick Cave is wading, knee-dip in muck and shit, grumbling and snarling: "They call me Dim, I am the Dim Locator, loco-lomo-loco-lomo-wow-wow-wow". It ain't a pretty sight, but it sure looks realistic enough to want to take cover.
But a bigger bet is staked on sheer visceral brutality: ʽDead Joeʼ jackhammers your guts into your spine with Motörhead intensity, as the song tries to recreate the impression of a «car crash apocalypse» and the ensuing panic ("you can't tell the girls from the boys anymore"), and ʽHamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow!)ʼ does the same thing, but sadistically takes extra time to arrive at the desired effect — the «Hamlet» in question, transferred to modern times, is now the equivalent of a religious psychopath ("Hamlet got a gun now, he wears a crucifix"), a hidden menace that trots around at a brisk jazzy tempo before exploding, every once in a while, in a series of snarling pow-pow-pows as «Hamlet» gets carried away.
On the other side of the street, ʽShe's Hitʼ andʽSeveral Sinsʼ move slowly and refrain from descending into sheer utter epileptic madness, but then again, even the maddest madmen should take a break from rolling on the floor foaming at the mouth from time to time. And there is some genuine emotional depth here — behind all the discordant jazz-punk wailing of ʽShe's Hitʼ Nick manages to put down an atmosphere of tragic sadness, while ʽSeveral Sinsʼ counts off the beginning of his fire-and-brimstone streak ("I forgot to tell you several things, Ma, I forgot to tell you 'bout the seven sins"). The song is also interesting in that it announces the arrival of Barry Adamson, temporarily replacing Tracy Pew on bass while the latter was doing a two-month term for drunk driving — Adamson would later go on to become one of the Bad Seeds. Not that ʽSeveral Sinsʼ is a particularly complex track, bass-wise, but Barry quickly gets in the general gloomy groove of the band, and helps make the song a true «dead letter tale» as it promises in its opening line. The only question is, how in the world could they all turn in such a credible performance when they barely had something like twenty-five years or so to indulge in the seven sins?
If there is one general flaw on Junkyard, it is the length: forty minutes may be a bit too much even for the veteran listener, especially considering that Side B of the disc does not stray too far from the same territory, and may give the impression of the band getting a little tired, or maybe it's just the listener who got tired. ʽBig Jesus Trash Canʼ walks pretty much the same turf as ʽBlast Off!ʼ, ʽKiss Me Blackʼ raises the same ruckus as ʽDead Joeʼ, the title track is a slow-burning dirge that does not exceed the effects of ʽShe's Hitʼ, and so on. Individually, each song is strong, but collectively, it does begin to get a bit samey after a while, and this, I am afraid to say, cheapens the overall experience: being shocked to the bone at the sight of an epileptic shaking in convulsions is one thing — having to watch him do it for half an hour and slowly getting used to it, let alone getting bored with it, is another. Consequently, it might make sense to listen to Junkyard one side at a time.
No matter what your particular preference might be, though, Junkyard remains the album that The Birthday Party was sent into this world to leave us with. Some might find it too far out, too violent, too messy, and prefer the slightly more subtle and, if I may say so, slightly more «poppy» Prayers On Fire instead, but the way I see it, if you are born into this world to be a gut-puller, then the harder you pull on those guts, the better you are fulfilling your destiny. On Junkyard, Nick and his friends are not merely engaging in senseless musical hooliganry — they are engineering an avantgarde masterpiece that may not be as inventive and revolutionary as Trout Mask Replica, but sounds much more meaningful to my ears. This is more than just a regular thumbs up: Junkyard should, by all means, end up on all the representative top lists for the decade.
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