First, Gavin Rossdale stole Kurt Cobain's sound, right down to the last sad-but-fuzzy guitar chord and strangled vocal growl. Then he and his hired helpers rode it to a quintuple-platinum hit with Sixteen Stone, primarily because modern rock radio programmers were damned if they were going to let Cobain derail their gravy train by killing himself. For an encore, Rossdale made lovey-dovey with Cobain's widow; hired Cobain's ex-producer, Steve Albini, to record Bush's second album, Razorblade Suitcase; brought in Cobain's ex-cello player for some sessions; started talking in interviews about Cobain's big influence (the Pixies) and favorite body ailment (stomach problems); and made a video for Suitcase's first single, "Swallowed," that borrows the Cobain-on-a-couch-with-cross image from "Heart Shaped Box" and the cheerleading moshers from "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
I hear the folks at Nirvana's label, Geffen Records, are keeping a list that includes a few more minor thieveries I may have missed, but you get the point: Rossdale is the most blatant rock 'n' roll crook since Jimmy "Why credit them ol' blues guys?" Page. Mind you, as a postmodernist, I applaud such behavior. Authenticity is a sham invented by egghead critics who've forgotten how to rock. All's fair in the age of appropriation, and if you're gonna steal, why not steal from the best? My problem is what Bush does with its precious purloined wares. It's like making a toilet bowl out of gold.
Rossdale is a man with nothing worthwhile to say, and more often than not, he says it like Cobain. Ol' Kurt didn't invent the image-laden, cut-and-paste approach to lyric writing--you can blame William S. Burroughs for that--but he had his own unique vocabulary, and Rossdale must have the words stuck up on his refrigerator like a set of magnetic poetry. There's a hip college drinking game involving J.G. Ballard's novel Crash: You open the book and take a shot every time you find a sentence involving sex or cars. You can do the same with Razorblade Suitcase whenever you catch a phrase that's Cobainesque: "Dead and dumb . . . with the lights on . . . married by signs . . . cold, contagious . . . blackened lungs . . . mouth of my father . . . say you will, never mind . . . I'm gonna find my way to the sun." Whee, I'm getting buzzed just thinking about it!
Where Cobain used such enigmatic lines to offer shards of insight into a ridiculously complicated world view, Rossdale throws this language around in a a vain attempt to sound impressive, while his simplistic philosophy can actually be summed up in the lyric "Drink life as it comes/Straight no chaser." If that isn't a line from Animal House, Dean Martin must have said it in one of the Rat Pack movies. This too would be forgivable: Plenty of rockers have hung great music on less of a statement than carpe diem. But the 13 tunes on Razorblade Suitcase are utterly bland, lifeless and bar-code generic, although this time it's in an abrasive, skronking way as opposed to the big, polished grunge of Sixteen Stone (just like In Utero vs. Nevermind, but you already knew that).
Of course, Albini dialed up his patented harsh sounds--the barbed-wire guitar, rampaging drums, and a bit of "screaming through a bullhorn" business on "Personal Holloway"--and he applied his punk-rock, record-'em-live, wart-and-all techniques. Clearly, Bush thought it could buy credibility with this noise, which is the only reason anyone ever puts up with Albini. As for Steve, his pals in Chicago say he's finally found a building to house the studio of his dreams, and now he has the capital for it. Much more amusing than this album are the interviews in which Albini, the most sanctimonious man in show business, valiantly tries to avoid the words "I did it for the money."
Issues of originality aside, Bush has to be granted some grudging respect simply because earlier songs like "Everything Zen" and "Glycerine" are impossible to get out of your head. But "Swallowed" is the best tune here, and it's nowhere near as indelible. The rest of the album is just pointless din delivered via needlessly serpentine arrangements with Rossdale doing his '90s romantic bit on top. Last time, it was easy to dismiss the Bushmen for the many reasons cited above. This time, it's even easier, but the response that's really warranted by Razorblade Suitcase is simply to ignore it. If we all stop staring at Rossdale's cheekbones, they'll probably go away.