Blixa Bargeld wasn't just born to play Hamlet—he was born Hamlet. Einstürzende Neubauten's founder's stormy vocal attack and hyperdramatic mien alone would have guaranteed his success as Prince of Denmark; his stride made him a perfect one. Bargeld is one of the greatest pacers in the history of show business. The leggy Berliner spent a handsome chunk of the '80s marking the distance between stages left and right with an urgency that spelled inner conflict right down to the bare neutrinos. Like a U.S.–made appliance running on German current, Bargeld seemed likely to explode into a million shards at any minute, or implode, or both. By 1990, when playwright Heiner Müller tagged Bargeld to star in his Hamletmaschine, he'd been unconsciously rehearsing the role for a decade.
Judging by "Ich gehe jetzt," the opening number of Perpetuum Mobile (Mute), Neubauten's 12th album, Bargeld could be bucking for the lead in The Leonard Cohen Story. Not that the song departs significantly from the course he set for Neubauten long ago; the band's relationship with mellow dates back to their 1987 cover of Lee Hazelwood's "Sand." Still, the implicit resignation in Bargeld's detached delivery comes as a shock, if for no other reason than that he sounds like he's sitting down. Fortunately, "Ich" is just the calm before the sturm. Bargeld implies as much in the song's final verse, deadpanning in German over restrained guitar, bass, and percussion: "After me the flood/ After me tornados/After me tsunamis and cleansings/After me the hardships/The cold, the drought, the heat/More than ever since man started thinking/It's about time/That the earth itself finally spins/Transforms and breaks its bonds."
Neubauten come close to realizing "Ich"'s apocalyptic promise on the album's title track, a pulsating guitar drone and metal percussion-driven epic that steals its rhythmic infrastructure from the Birthday Party's "Mutiny in Heaven" (which featured backing vocals by Bargeld). "Perpetuum Mobile" is simultaneously surreal traveling music and an invocation of chaos and chance. Bargeld's detachment, while still present, seems more like a ruse as he croons (once again, in German): "Yes, this case was sometimes left unattended/Yes, others had access to it/Yes, I was asked to carry presents/Yes, there are electrical appliances in the case/Yes, many batteries/No, not everything belongs to me." From its opening clatter, the track provides the album's most cogent example of the band's full- bandwidth mastery of metal on metal, as much a wellspring of color and texture as it is raw beat fodder.
Nothing else on the album is nearly as exciting as "Perpetuum Mobile," or as dull as "Ich gehe jetzt." Bargeld plays the subdued and stately card quite a bit—understandably. The one-time poster boy for Berlin's Geniale Dillentanten (ingenious dilettante) movement stopped being a dilettante even before he laid his self-designed, safety pin– festooned costumes to rest in the late '80s. Since 1995's Tabula Rasa, Bargeld has essentially followed in the footsteps of Johnny Cash, Serge Gainsbourg, and longtime colleague Nick Cave, relying on subtlety and nuance instead of the brute force that served him so well at first. But he has learned a number of new and slightly preowned tricks. The bluesy "Paradiesseits" ("Paradising"), finds Bargeld cheerier than ever, proclaiming: "The sun appears in the morning/It knows the keyword/The sea welcomes me/In the colors of the promised heavens/The surf is within and above me/All images are the wind/And though I cannot say it/I can nevertheless sing/Paradising all the time." Maybe it's The Mr. Rogers Story he's prepping for; Bargeld even ends the song by whistling—something he never would have considered even 10 years ago. His embrace of intergalactic funk on "Der Weg ins Freie" ("The Way Into the Open") comes as even more of a surprise. Despite the fact that the German language's strong internal prosody makes it an altogether worthy shuttle to the mothership, overt syncopation seems like an incredibly un-Blixa-like strategy.
Perpetuum Mobile is easily Neubauten's most user-friendly album, but it's hardly a sell-out attempt. Twenty-three years have brought plenty of refinement; at first listen, it's tempting to suggest that the album could just as easily have been called We Still Do This, but More Gently. Sure, they apply the junkyard aesthetic that first brought them fame with far more restraint than they did 20 years ago. Why not? They have more tricks up their collective sleeve. Sure, they buy most of their metal percussion now instead of finding or, uh, liberating it the way they used to. Sure, some of the pipes on the cover of Perpetuum Mobile even match. ("We'd like something in a robin's egg blue, please.") But the metal is far more than overlay, afterthought, or the sort of gesture that typified Neubauten peers Sonic Youth live in their mid-'90s heyday, when Thurston Moore would offer up dinky bits of guitar skronk between radio semihits. Neubauten's bang is so deeply woven into the fabric of their klang that it can take a while to notice, much like Bargeld's ongoing Hamlet, simply because he turned his back on the Bard and decided to go on being.
Einstürzende Neubauten play the Showbox at 8 p.m. Wed., May 5. $17.50 adv.