Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads

Murder Ballads (1996)

B+

1. Song Of Joy 2. Stagger Lee 3. Henry Lee 4. Lovely Creature 5. Where The Wild Roses Grow 6. The Curse Of Millhaven 7. The Kindness Of Strangers 8. Crow Jane 9. O’Malley’s Bar 10. Death Is Not The End

 

Yup, that’s a parental advisory label on the cover, all right. Apparently Tipper Gore isn’t much of a Nick Cave fan. Can’t say I’m surprised; I’m sure we can all presume that the mood music she picks when she decides to lay Al down by the fire and warm his globes every dozen years or so is closer to Wagner than the Wu-Tang Clan. In any case, don’t think that Murder Ballads is so much more vulgar than every previous Bad Seeds album (though, to be honest, it actually is) that the advisory board couldn’t help but take notice so as to protect our vulnerable children from the societal cancer that is the word “fuck.” No, the only reason the dreaded black and white rectangle is up there where it wasn’t before is because not enough people were previously listening to Nick Cave for anyone to consider him a corrupting influence. Murder Ballads, on the other hand, marks the peculiar moment in history when the Bard of Warracknabeal flirted with MTV fame. (Like the total badass that he is, he declined the offer).

It’s true. Apparently the only thing previously keeping the Bad Seeds from commercial success was the lack of chick singers, as evidenced by the fact that this album’s token folk ballads, “Henry Lee” and “Where The Wild Roses Grow,” performed as duets with Nick’s fellow Australians PJ Harvey (that makes sense) and Kylie Minogue (wha??), respectively, both became hit singles. But the graceful, string-laden beauty of those two tunes is far from indicative of the remainder of this album. The name tells you all you need to know about the subject matter, and the traditional murder ballad form is one obviously tailor made for Nick. In fact, the concept of Nick Cave doing an album comprised entirely of murder ballads seems obvious to the point of being predictable. But that fact doesn’t appear lost on Nick… although this is no doubt that this is a thoroughly macabre collection of songs, I can’t help but hear the singer’s tongue being firmly implanted in cheek.

Gore and vulgarity are exaggerated to the point of camp – and to the point where the proceedings begin to come across as knowing self-parody. Take “Stagger Lee,” which is nominally based on one of the most covered blues songs ever but bastardized (and I use that as a term of endearment) to the point that it basically becomes a gangsta rap song. And it’s pretty much the best gangsta rap song I’ve ever heard… Depression era gangstas like the song’s titular characters are way more badass than Tupac could’ve ever hoped to be. But its extreme language ain’t nothing compared to “O’Malley’s Bar,” wherein a man unassumingly walks into a bar and proceeds to murder everyone in the establishment. These events are described in excruciating detail and take 14 minutes and 28 seconds to transpire, but rather than coming across as a heavy, ponderous epic, I find it so exaggerated and overblown that it’s just funny… like the world’s longest, blackest, most gruesome “a guy walks into a bar” joke. And I’ve little doubt that was the intention.

“O’Malley’s Bar” is the most extreme example of Murder Ballads half-creepy, half-farcical quality, but certainly not the only one. Foreboding droners “Song Of Joy” and “Lovely Creature” are pure cabin-in-the-woods horror movie atmosphere; they don’t have all that much going on in the songwriting department, but plenty of effort was obviously expended trying to make them sound “scary” like a Stephen King novel. But tell me they’re not going over the top and winking at us all the while with adornments like those little girl backing vocals in “Lovely Creature” or the track of a woman crying that runs throughout the slow piano lament “The Kindness Of Strangers.” Can you imagine them putting a woman crying in “The Weeping Song?” Not a chance; they were serious about that one. This stuff is black comedy all the way. I mean, there’s a seven-minute song about a child serial killer whose sound I can only describe as “polka punk” (“The Curse Of Millhaven”); don’t tell me they’re not having a laugh with this whole thing.

For all these reasons, Murder Ballads is thoroughly entertaining, but I guess I miss the increased focus on songwriting craft and sophistication that marked Henry’s Dream and Let Love In. I suppose that’s why the Cave-arranged traditional dirge “Henry Lee” is such a key cut here; it adds a much-needed dash of stripped-down, folk-based sincerity to the proceedings, and PJ Harvey’s guest vocals fit in perfectly. I also like the album closer: “Death Is Not The End,” possibly the most random Bob Dylan cover of all time (and here I thought I was the only who has ever actually listened to Bob’s pitiful 1987 LP Down In The Groove). It’s by no means a great song, but it affords everyone the opportunity to sing a verse (including the previously featured guests stars/Australian gals), and a bit of faint, churchy uplift at the end is exactly what a well-structured black comedy needs. When heard in retrospect, it can also be construed as an apt double entendre about the band itself. It’s sort of obvious Nick had taken his now well-worn death-and-violence-obsessed persona about as far as it could go; that is, to and past the point of ridiculousness. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a pretty significant change in direction occurred right after this. Indeed, Murder Ballads marks the definite endpoint of the first part of Nick Cave’s career; something quieter waited just around the bend.



2 Comments

  1. […] th&#1077 rest here: Jeremy Etc » Nick Cave & Th&#1077 T&#1077rr&#1110b&#406&#1077 Seeds – Murder Ballads (function(){var […]

    • Sunil wrote:

      Bizarrely, I just tried to get my dog to pick out a CD for me to listen to with her nose (don’t ask). She chose that very album, under a layer of dust since I last liestned to it circa 2001. Then I clicked on your blog and read this – spooky. Oh, and the 200 – have you not discovered the joys of Lidl and Splott Marche?


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