“I mean, whatever happened to when a guy just wanted to play some honest music for his peer group?” — Iggy Pop
I’m afraid to wonder just who Iggy Pop’s peer group might be, but I’d willingly wager that half of them are breaking the law right now. Iggy has made a career of treading the danger line like no one since Jim Morrison; in the process, the Ig has managed to become the yardstick by which rock outrage is measured. Twelve albums into the fray, Iggy Pop has found sanctuary on Animal Records, a Chrysalis subsidiary whose roster is overseen by Chris Stein of Blondie. Now that Iggy’s free of major-label expectations (not that he ever capitulated), one might have anticipated something on the order of Metallic K.O. Revisited. Surprisingly, Zombie Birdhouse is a brainy, well-plotted collection with more depth than could have been expected from the author of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
This album may just be Iggy’s Morrison Hotel; like that Doors classic, Zombie Birdhouse takes an almost novelistic look at the character of America that is by turns funny and angry, reverential and irreverent. It’s filled, too, with an almost mystical primitivism that brings out the shaman in Iggy’s soul. The Doors analogy is unavoidable in this sense, of course, but all this imitation is sincerely flattering, and it’s been awhile since we’ve had a convincing shaman on the scene. Besides, the rich lyrical imagery and musical daring of Zombie Birdhouse, particularly on the first side, are enough to make it a minor classic in its own right. Take “Life of Work,” in which Iggy Pop has refashioned an old sea shanty into a sad riddle for the working class: “What do you do with a life of work?/Face it in the morning.” “The Ballad of Cookie McBride” is just amazing; it sounds like a Bob Dylan lament sung by Leon Russell with a twist of Lizard King metaphysics (“Hi-hi-ho, it’s a watery day/On my way to an unmarked grave”). Throughout, Iggy’s collaborator, guitarist-keyboardist Rob duPrey, manages to produce some fascinating noise by altering, filtering and treating his instruments. Chris Stein and Clem Burke of Blondie provide the exotic rhythmic spice that seasons this record to perfection.
If I have any complaints, it’s that the second side gets a bit flaky with its rough mixes, sloppy endings and dub foolery. But the first side is a killer — acute, lucid and hard as diamond. In “Run like a Villain,” Iggy describes a dizzying rush of feeling that’s pure exhilaration: “The shining moon. The dead oak tree Nights like this appeal to me….” Me, too.