Meat Puppets II would go on to influence a wide swath of prominent figures of the approaching grunge and alternative rock eras.
The Meat Puppets’ music may have achieved its highest level of visibility when Nirvana memorably covered three of the band’s songs in an acoustic performance for MTV Unplugged in New York, but their most influential album premiered a decade earlier. Released in 1984, Meat Puppets II marked a drastic departure from the band’s earlier sound as they’d grown weary of the hardcore punk approach featured on their self-titled debut. Their musical shift for this sophomore record—one that softened the edges of their punk sensibility and infused it with a country tinge—would make them pioneers of the “cowpunk” subgenre that lumped them in with the likes of mid-‘80s Violent Femmes, but for all its shit-kicking, redneck trappings, Meat Puppets II would go on to influence a wide swath of prominent figures of the approaching grunge and alternative rock eras.
For their hardcore punk-oriented debut album, lead singer Curt Kirkwood’s raw-throated vocals were nearly indecipherable. Part of the change in direction, according to Kirkwood, stemmed simply from a desire to avoid screaming throughout his whole career. The introduction of the folksier, country-oriented elements forced him to start singing melodically for the first time on an album, his often fragile quaver adding earnestness to songwriting that showed impressive depth.
The greatest achievement of Meat Puppets II may lie in the fact that it became so influential despite the band’s slapdash creative process. Not only has bassist Cris Kirkwood stated that his brother Curt managed to crank out the painting that would become the album’s cover art “in about a minute” after the pair “smoked grass” in their mom’s bathroom, but much of the album was written in haste and through a drug-influenced haze. Curt has said he wrote the sardonic “Lake of Fire” and the psychedelic hoe-down instrumental “Magic Toy Missing” in one sitting after dropping acid at a Halloween Party, and that he has no recollection whatsoever of writing album standout “Plateau.”
While Cris’s drug abuse would eventually derail the band, both Kirkwood brothers have also pointed to snorting MDMA, a little-known drug at the time, to fuel them throughout the process of creating this album. Wanting to take a surrealist approach to their songwriting, their drug use and interest in painting and other forms of visual art became apparent on tracks like “We’re Here,” with its murmured vocals about walls turning into waterfalls. But it’s the jammed out instrumental tracks (“I’m a Mindless Idiot,” “Aurora Borealis”), with their jangly ‘60s-esque guitars, that best manage to fuse rootsy elements with a penchant for swirling psychedelia.
Elsewhere, Meat Puppets II touches upon religious commentary and themes of wanderlust. The punched-up tempo of “New Gods” may obscure the clarity of lyrics about a restaurant in Mexico that only serves Pepsi Cola, but Curt’s frail voice comes throughout crisply on “Lost” as he sings of the excitement contained within the uncertainty of traveling a freeway without any sense of direction. Meanwhile, the three songs that Kurt Cobain would choose to cover for his “MTV Unplugged” session (with the accompaniment of the Kirkwood brothers), all touch upon religion. “Lake of Fire” finds Curt returning to a more screamed vocal at times, and it goes a bit more off the rails with its energy than in Cobain’s more restrained and drawn-out version. “Plateau” meanwhile, is subtler in its religious commentary (giving itself away most directly in the line “Who needs action when you’ve got words,” and the fragility of Curt’s voice as he sings “There’s nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop/ And an illustrated book about birds” eclipses the power of Cobain’s faithful cover. Meanwhile, as it ponders infinity and one’s place in the world, “Oh, Me” may prove to be the album’s most philosophical and emotive track.
Following the Kirkwood brothers’ appearance in Nirvana’s “Unplugged” session, the Meat Puppets would gain new life as a band just as Cobain’s was ending. Their 1994 album Too High to Die would achieve gold status and mark their greatest commercial success before drug abuse and inner turmoil led to a series of breakups and reunions over the next two-plus decades. Though it underperformed for them upon its release, Meat Puppets II went on to influence not only Nirvana, but the likes of Soundgarden, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr.—hell, for what it’s worth, Flea even called it “the warmest, coolest fucking record.” While it may best be known for the bands it influenced, Meat Puppets II stands on its own as one of the essential albums of its era, the timeless product of a band with the guts to throw their entire formula out the window and start fresh with an amalgamated sound nobody had heard before.