Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Murder Ballads
Mute Records
Atmospheric Alt. Rock, Post-Punk
10 songs (58:43)
Release year: 1996
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds , Mute Records
Reviewed by Goat
Archive review

People equal shit, as Slipknot remarked, and whilst the source may be questionable the sentiment is plain truth. The numbers of ordinary human beings doing despicable acts in recent years has multiplied. Around the world countless conflicts are being fought with considerable loss of life for no gain or purpose, most of them ignored by the western media for more interesting revelations such as politicians having affairs. Yes, people are indeed shit, yet few commercial bands are comfortable enough with the dark side of man to explore the murderous character of it as a species; the genetic makeup that makes us so capable of destroying our own kind without thought or question, merely because some other has declared the destruction as ‘right’. The ninth album from former The Birthday Party frontman Nick Cave and his Bad Seeds doesn’t go that far – here, there is no ‘right’ or indeed ‘left’ to say that someone is deserving of death simply because of how they think or feel.

Instead, this album is dedicated to the ballads of death, those romances of star-crossed lovers destroying all that they or another holds dear. Held within this album are tales of the perverse, the sick and the disgusting, those capable of both romance with a smile and death without denial, crimes of passion that live on into folk legend. By making such an album, the band recognises love for what it truly is: more than a tragedy, but less than a fairytale.

Listening to Murder Ballads is an interesting experience, not least for Nick Cave’s voice, as individual as ever with just a hint of his native Australian accent and a storytelling style that is highly effective. It’s easiest to sum up the whole experience as being sat at some backwoods bar next to an old-timer telling you the local tales and legends, whilst in the background the bar band warms up. Each song here describes a horrific murder, some committed by the protagonist in each, some not, and in some it’s left to your imagination. The actual Rock element in each is fairly minimalist; the only track that actually tries to prove itself via actual extremity is the infamous Stagger Lee. Song Of Joy, the opening track of the album, sets the pattern for the majority of the listen by laying out the tale of a man whose wife Joy and three children are murdered, leaving him destitute. The lyrical hints that the protagonist himself is the murderer are what give this song its creepy edge, taking several listens to appreciate properly yet gripping from the first.

Following track Stagger Lee, based around the traditional tale of the African-American murderer, takes the ballad format to the extreme with its description of homosexual rape and murder, Nick’s vocals taking on a near-hysterical note. The frequent usage of words like ‘motherfucker’ gives it all a brutal sense that most bands could never achieve, simply because they lack the subject matter. What makes it all particularly horrific is that you feel the sense of admiration for his subject that Nick Cave and company have, the sense that the protagonist is as much a hero as a villain. Of course, this is my personal take on it, and this really is an album that demands time, patience and concentration to fathom, but of all the songs on the album Stagger Lee is the scummiest, both aurally and lyrically. The characters in the song are all revolting, from Lee himself to the whore who doesn’t care about the bartender killed in front of her, to her man who arrives only to enthusiastically ‘slobber on his head’, and the dip into garage rock and high-pitched screeching (provided by Bad Seed guitarist Blixa Bargeld, better known as frontman of amazing German Prog-Industrialists Einstürzende Neubauten) is as shocking as the lyrics.

Ironically, from then on things take a different, almost beauteous turn. The most famous song from the album, Where The Wild Roses Grow, tells of a man courting a woman only to kill her. It was a major hit for the band, featuring pop princess Kylie Minogue on female vocals, and despite your predictable reaction to this she does a great job, her gorgeously warm voice a good counterpart to Cave’s dry yet tender drawl. It certainly beats any of her usual fluff, and must be the first time she’s received praise on this site! Some pieces of music transcend such mere boundaries as genre, however, and this is one of them.

Sadly, the album never quite hits the same high notes again, despite moments such as the whooping chaos that opens The Curse Of Millhaven, the aural bluegrass-tinged craziness fitting with the lyrical subject of a mad yet beautiful girl on a killing spree. The only other memorable songs are the Bluesy Crow Jane and the fourteen-minute O’Malley’s Bar, the former telling of a woman’s lethal revenge on her gang-rapists (all twenty of them!) and the latter the story of a mass-killing in a bar, as you may have predicted. It’s amazing how Cave’s voice subtly changes in each track, he’s a very underrated vocalist, and you can tell he gives it his all without straining the limits of his voice – and there are definitely limits.

As for the rest, The Kindness Of Strangers is laid-back but could have been left out without harming the album, and the finale, a Bob Dylan cover of Death Is Not The End with each verse sung by a different vocalist including Kylie and The Pogues’ Shane McGowan, is nice but simply doesn’t work, not least because it’s the only song where a murder isn’t committed. All in all, there are sixty-four murders described over the course of the album, a scorecard to rival many a Goregrind opus, and enough violence to give it the status of extremity even if musically this seems far from it. By now you’re probably wondering how much longer I’m going to ramble on about this, and whilst admittedly the first two paragraphs of this review could have been cut out, the point is really worth making: as uplifting as music can be when it’s optimistic and joyful, it can be equally as enjoyable when given a dark subject matter like this, especially in the capable and witty hands of Nick Cave. Paragraphs could be written about the wonderful lyrics he writes, packed full of intelligent puns and wry observations – but space, alas, allows it not.

Instead, if you’re a seasoned Seeder and haven’t yet had the Murder Ballads experience you’re missing out, despite it not being the band’s best. The more freshly-planted would do better to start elsewhere in the fourteen-strong discography, and since each album is quite different it’s tough to recommend a starting place, although this year’s Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! is very enjoyable. Truly original and intelligent Rock music that doesn’t hold pretentious Prog aspirations is increasingly rare on the scene, but throughout their career Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have provided a variety of wonders for the music fan, and there’s no reason an open-minded Metalhead can’t wander over the great divide and indulge themselves in better music than comes from many a Metal band.

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Killing Songs :
Song Of Joy, Stagger Lee, Where The Wild Roses Grow, The Curse Of Millhaven, Crow Jane, O’Malley’s Bar
Goat quoted 82 / 100
Other albums by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that we have reviewed:
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! reviewed by Goat and quoted 90 / 100
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