THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: PRAYERS ON FIRE (1981)
1) Zoo-Music Girl; 2) Cry; 3) Capers; 4) Nick The Stripper; 5) Ho-Ho; 6) Figure Of Fun; 7) King Ink; 8) A Dead Song; 9) Yard; 10) Dull Day; 11) Just You And Me; 12) Blundertown; 13) Kathy's Kisses.
Hee Haw was mighty good, but this LP and its follow-up are the real shit when we speak of The Birthday Party. For one thing, it sounds like nothing else — the band has not only found, but laid a unique claim to their own identity, impossible to confuse with Bauhaus, Joy Division, or any other single New Wave band, UK or elsewhere. For another (or maybe it's the same thing, just differently stated), the band has «unleashed the fuckin' fury», to quote an undying classic. I am not sure about any actual praying going on, but «on fire» gets it just about right.
For some reason, Nick Cave later admitted embarrassment about ʽZoo-Music Girlʼ (maybe because of the lyrics and their objectifying the lady of Nick's dreams a bit too overtly?), but it's hard to make out the words anyway; what is important is the collective onslaught — drums, bass, organ, guitar, vocals: five berserk warriors zig-zagging around the compound, trampling out everything in their path. This is mad, mad, mad tribal music, a shamanistic whirlwind, yet with just the right amount of self-control so as to never fall apart, and be able to quickly pick itself up after each pause of its tricky stop-and-start structure. And then the brass part comes in, and hoopla, it is suddenly a schizophrenic avantgarde jazz masterpiece. What's to be embarrassed of?
The true power of Prayers On Fire is not in the amount of sheer ruckus it manages to generate — it is in its insanely unexpectable quantity of melodic ideas. The «songs», or, rather, dashing musical disgorgements, are chockfull with stunning Rowland S. Howard riffs, acid organ parts, and spooky basslines; at least one of these distinguishes every song, and sometimes, all three do battle with each other. On ʽCryʼ, Howard and Harvey both wield guitars, first playing against each other, then complementing Nick on the chorus with united series of arpeggios that formally represent the protagonist «crying» over his girl dumping him. But the «cry» in question, be it Nick's vocals or the two guitarists' choking trills, is not really a cry — more like a madman's agonizing gurgle, or an epileptic fit. Very naturalistic.
The band's «goth» angle, in the meantime, has evolved to the level of ʽNick The Stripperʼ, which makes additional use of the talents of the Melbourne jazz combo Equal Local (the album was recorded in Australia) and, consequently, sounds a bit like «lounge jazz from hell», where Equal Local's brass section is the hot, sensual, glamorous counterpart to the black devil sound of the bass and Nick's voice, intentionally mangling "insect" and "incest" as if the change of just one sound doesn't really do a hell of a lot of difference. The ʽNickʼ of the song may refer to anybody, but in this particular context, it is clearly understood as self-referential: "Nick the Stripper, a-hideous to the eye, well he's a fat little insect..." — self-hatred was rarely, if ever, expressed with so much animal brutality as it is on this song.
Of course, the basic emotional content of all the songs is more or less the same, and this makes it hard to comment on the individual tracks. «Confusion», «frustration», «infuriation», «insanity», all of these abstractions and their closest neighbors rule on every track, generated in tandem by all of the musicians — the greatness of The Birthday Party is in the fact that everybody contributed on the level, everybody strove to add their own pinch of tightly controlled (or loosely controlled) chaos. As far as songwriting is concerned, Cave gets credited on most of the tracks, but usually in collaboration with Howard, and sometimes Howard is the only credited writer, e. g. on the ominous piano rocker ʽDull Dayʼ — in reality, though, this is very much a collective product; I could not imagine the songs having nearly the same impact if even one of the players here suddenly slacked out and remained there to simply fill the required space.
Nick himself was particularly proud of ʽKing Inkʼ, which has possibly the creepiest bass melody on the entire album, but is not so good guitar-wise (too much noise, not enough geometrically insulting melody). Me, I prefer «Nick the demented patient» of ʽA Dead Songʼ, also not particularly exciting melodically, but featuring his most expressive and credible performance on the entire record — credible, as in «this really makes you believe the guy spent several weeks in the madhouse to observe and practice». But in reality, these preferences differ by split hairs: the album has to be swallowed as a whole (plus the two bonus tracks on the CD edition, of which ʽKathy's Kissesʼ, a stumbling, stuttering post-punk deconstruction of Kurt Weillian cabaret, is a particular highlight), and the thumbs up rating applies in near-equal mode to all of its parts.
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