No matter how many years and trends have flown by and no matter how many drugs he’s ingested, Al Jourgensen has been nothing if not consistent. I am by no means a scholar of his work, but I have been a fan of Ministry and Jourgensen’s many side projects (Revolting Cocks, 1000 Homo DJs, Lard etc.) since I was 13. That was the year I saw Ministry as one of the headliners of Lollapalooza ’92. Al grimaced, coughed and snorted in a dusty black cowboy hat with bushy matted hair hanging from it, his stage covered in bones, the volume cranked beyond anything I’ve ever heard since at a live show. He scared the shit out of me and I loved it.
After starting as a fey new-wave act in the early ’80s (an era which he has since disowned) Ministry became progressively more cacophonous and heavy on the albums Twitch, and The Land of Rape and Honey. When Seattle and the alternative rock movement busted open like a hairy piñata, a portal opened where truly heavy fare could find its way onto MTV. With roots grown from Chicago industrial music and cross-pollinated with thrash metal, Ministry’s 1992 breakthrough Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs was a delicious feast of steak gristle, meant to be chewed to the bleached bone. It whetted the world’s appetite for such music and opened the door for Nine Inch Nails’ blockbuster The Downward Spiral in 1994, and made the world a friendlier place for acts like White Zombie and Marilyn Manson.
Some 21 years and nine albums later, not a lot has changed in the Ministry camp on From Beer to Eternity. The noise is still ear-splitting. The vocals still sound like somebody barfing a stomach full of gravel, the politics are still pretty easy and surface, the mean sense of humor remains, dripping off the songs like melting teeth; they don’t have quite have the same bite but can still chew most of their food.
The first thing one has to get over when listening to the majority of Ministry’s work is the rotten artwork and terrible titles. Dark Side of the Spoon, anyone? Could he please not have named his record From Beer to Eternity? Could he please not have put a gross picture of himself dressed as some kind of Jesus of Nazareth pulling a net full of screaming naked women out of the ocean? I guess it’s not as bad as the cover of his previous album, Relapse, with an image of a man OD’d on prescription drugs, face-down and dead in his own puke. And here is why, no matter how embarrassing his signifiers are, Al Jourgensen is so beloved to me: he does not give a flying, fingering, front-loaded I-am-a-showgirl-at-carnival-in-Rio-with-my-head-dress-on-fire fuck.
From the meat-grinder opener of “Hail to His Majesty (Peasants),” “I hate all you motherfuckers/you’re stupid/you’re stupid/hail to his majesty/suck my motherfucking dick/while I spray on the public” you get a pretty good idea of where Al’s head is at. He hates everybody. In an interview promoting this record he said he doesn’t appreciate his fans, he “appreciate[s] their money.” It seems he thinks we’re all chumps for buying this shit, and claims he didn’t even want to make this record in the first place. If you’re going to churn out some gamey leftovers, you might as well have a fantastic opening line. “Lick my motherfuckin’ balls,” he later commands. “Pearl necklaces for everyone/don’t care at all/’cause I’m fucking Al Jourgensen, peasants/you’re all peasants.”
When he screams “I really want to break your jaw!” on “Punch in the Face,” it’s almost as if his vitriol has shifted from the Bush administration, as it was focused for so many years, to the listener himself. It’s as if his rage now stems partly from having to remain this caricature of himself, still stuck in that crusty black hat after all these years. Other than haranguing his audience, the potshots here are pretty basic and on the nose: “PermaWar” is a thrashing call for a worldwide ceasefire, “Perfect Storm” is about irreparable planet damage. And then there’s “Fairly Unbalanced,” a stale condemnation of Fox News.
“Side F/X Include Mikey’s Middle Finger (TV4)” is a fun bit of Adderall thrash interspersed with samples from various prescription medication commercials. Over the kicked-back dub groove of “Thanx But No Thanx,” Al growls a list of all the horrible things we can thank America for, like the KKK and “Kill a Queer for Christ” bumper stickers. It’s a re-reading of William S. Burroughs’ classic “A Thanksgiving Prayer,” from one of Burroughs’ early-’90s spoken word albums. The nod to one of the great American drug-addled writers is entertaining and kind of funny, but it’s also about at this point in the album that frustration begins to creep in. The bland, didactic preachiness has worn thin. But knowing that Al really doesn’t give a fuck what I or anybody else thinks, you just have to shrug; does it really matter anyway?
I really surprised myself by liking this record. Yes, there’s a lot of embarrassing moments here. Yes, this shtick is exhausted. But there’s a brilliant honesty that rides through all of it. Jourgensen does have a persona to live up to, and it must feel like a prison. Though he’s been clean for a decade, he made so much of Ministry’s music as a heroin user, it could be that he just wants to shed this skin once and for all. You can’t help but compare and contrast his career with Trent Reznor’s. While Reznor has kept putting new dye in the water, morphing the color formations from monstrous hues to radiant blooms, Jourgensen has defiantly sat in his own cloudy muck. When he sings “we’re tired, we’re tired” in “PermaWar,” you believe him. But unless you look at the lyrics, it actually sounds like he’s singing “retire, retire.”
But just when you feel like it’s time for a long, hot shower and a blast of the new Cher single, something changes: a female vocal emerges over the racket. The sudden sleazy sexiness of “Lesson Unlearned” harks back to Jourgensen’s tawdrier and more playful Revolting Cocks project. The song here pulls the filthy leather jacket that is Ministry out of the garbage, wipes it down a bit and convinces you that it might be cute to wear it a little bit longer. Just for a moment, the glammy elemental shimmer amidst the destructive, insistent violence reveals some actual poetry to the sound. Towards the end, the sitar-tinged “Change of Luck” explodes from hellish vocoded vocals into a euphoric lifting chorus that works as a grand exit; a chariot bursting from the stagnant sea into a sky of sun-melted rainclouds. It’s the second-to-last song on what Jourgensen says is Ministry’s final album, and if he’s telling the truth, at least it’s a keeper. When he sing-screams “Your luck is going to change/it’s gonna go from bad to strange,” I wonder if maybe he’s looking to the future for something a bit brighter, happier.
Just as From Beer to Eternity was going in to get mixed, Jourgensen’s friend and longtime Ministry guitar player and collaborator Mike Scaccia died on stage while playing with his other band Rigor Mortis. It was Mike, Al says, that convinced him to make this final record in the first place. He said to the Washington Times “I didn’t want to do it. So, in other words, if you like the record give me all the credit and if you don’t like the record, blame my dead guitar player for the whole fuckin’ mess.”
Whatever anyone thinks of “the whole fuckin’ mess,” you’ve got to hand it to Al. He’s survived, kept his vision true, and somehow managed to still be a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. My favorite thing aboutFrom Beer to Eternity and all the records he’s ever made is that this shit does what it says on the fuckin’ box.