The Genius Of… American Caesar by Iggy Pop
Iggy’s 1993 album finds him reinterpreting the American songbook in a way that would be echoed by his 2016 album Post Pop Depression.
Image: Frans Schellekens / Redferns
American Caesar is a book about American general Douglas MacArthur in which the author, William Manchester, draws parallels between the legendary WWII general and that most famous of Romans, Julius Caesar – noting that they were both ambitious, principled and brilliant leaders, ultimately undone by that most tragic of flaws, hubris.
It’s not clear whether Iggy Pop gave this grungey detour the same title as an acknowledgement that he may have artistically overreached himself, but the result represents one of the most interesting – and unfairly overlooked – chapters in our Sinewy General’s long canon.
Across 17 tracks, the rambunctious Pop punctures a horny, straggly nest of electric guitar riffs with unorthodox, stretched-out syllables and half-spat choruses. The record’s rock ’n’ roll palette spans country, blues, experimental rock and noisy grunge. Iggy sounds like an intoxicated cowboy on the Tom Petty-esque Mixin’ the Colors, and like David Bowie’s ghoulish, glamorous older brother on Wild America. His punchy, nasal delivery here will send shivers up your spine – sing along as “Wild America” becomes “Wiii-yulld Amer-ick-ah!”.
The country-garage punk party unfolds across almost 20 tracks, but there are rare moments of intricate, soul-searching here that help justify its reputation as one of Iggy’s best.
Jealousy is a drawled, melancholy affair that sounds like a Johnny Cash or long-suffering Lou Reed ballad. Iggy nods to Cash, the Highwayman and Man in Black, on Highway Song, a troubadour’s rollocking train ride through bluesy Americana.
When Iggy croons, “I feel it comin’, jealousy, baby, I feel it comin’, boilin’ my blood,” it doesn’t sound threatening, but fatigued. It sounds like the tiredness of a man who has had to earn his every cent and haggle for his every material possession in a world where a “blue blood” girl who “comes from top cheekbones” takes her gilded privileges for granted.
It’s Our Love is a foggy, smoggy love song. Guitars snarl before dissipating into a haze of sound. “Ain’t nobody gonna break it, our love, our love,” Iggy insists, before lamenting, “I didn’t have too much to offer / You didn’t have much to expect”.
This is about as romantic as Iggy gets. Enjoy these precious 4 minutes and 10 seconds in which the sinewy statesman falls to his knees and pleads for understanding, because when he’s done with the serenading, he rockets right into the knife-edged Plastic & Concrete, which cartwheels into Stooges-worthy sharp, sonic shapes.
Wonky guitars ooze atmosphere during the spoken-word, train-of-thought Fuckin’ Alone, driven by a hand-beaten drum beat. Midway through, the guitars emerge to form an acoustic folk flavour before the track ends with a bittersweet paean, an off-key wail of, “I don’t even know what you wanted, what… you… wanted”. Like most of American Caesar, the Jack Kerouac-style narrative comes co-written by Eric Schermerhorn.
The guitarist also played on Iggy’s Naughty Little Doggie, and had toured with Bowie’s band Tin Machine a couple of years earlier. He would go on to collaborate with Melissa Etheridge and Ric Ocasek, respectively, before joining English post-punks The The in 1995. His co-writing keeps the album moving and bolsters its best elements.
Iggy drops an octave and delivers his trademark baroque baritone on Beside You, a track packed with hormonal, juvenile desire. It sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack to a soft-focus teen movie from 1985. “You wake up love in me / I been hungry way down where it hurts / Waiting for a reason / I been hungry like a lot of guys.”
Co-written with Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, Beside You is evidence of just how easily Iggy’s music can be skewed by the calibre of his collaborators. Partnered with Schermerhorn, he rampages like a rock’n’roll hurricane – occasionally landing in the quiet, menacing centre for a ballad or two. Jones brings out the cheesy, bland, bargain-basement Pop.
Despite the record’s Jones-flavoured fat, American Caesar is a mid-career landmark for Iggy. When the Stooges broke up for good, he was a financially destitute heroin addict adrift in 1974 Los Angeles. Years after rehab, transplanting himself to Germany and befriending Bowie, Iggy released two of his finest solo albums just months apart in 1977, The Idiot and Lust for Life. A few forgettable releases followed, and there have been more forgettable (at best) releases in the past decades too, but when Iggy is on form, nobody ignites the bass speakers and thrashes like him.
Canadian Malcolm Burn – who would go on to win a Grammy for producing Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Girl – helmed American Caesar. His production enables Iggy to burst into savage, spittle-flecked rages against social injustices and then to crumple like an origami swan under pounding rain. The album reveals Iggy not so much as a sculpted, marble-solid Roman general, but as a hustling punk who grew up without a guidebook. His sardonic literary and political references are offset here by moments of spare vulnerability.
Recorded in New Orleans in September 1992, Iggy assembled a new trio for American Caesar: Schermerhorn, bassist Hal Cragin and drummer Larry Mullins. Henry Rollins, Lisa Germano and Katell Keineg make guest appearances on backing vocals too, but this is unmistakably Iggy’s work. In spirit, the record is like the younger brother to Post Pop Depression, Iggy’s 2016 album produced by Josh Homme.
Both albums feature savage rages, bittersweet ballads and country-tinged highway anthems in their own rendering of the American songbook. Hail Caesar? Maybe. Hail Pop, definitely.
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