Looking at this album’s cover art some 25 years ago when it first released, one might’ve feared that Nick Cave went full-on cozy singer-songwriter for his newest output – the idyllic, snowy landscape and the warmly-lit hut at its center don’t exactly scream ‘sinister’, if we’re being quite honest. Well, then you’d remember that the record was indeed called Murder Ballads, and any previous apprehension would’ve gone straight out the window. Beneath this rather thin veneer of picturesque imagery hides the same theatrically ominous vibe that has long since made Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds a household name in alternative music.
Celebrating its upcoming 25th anniversary (which is a mere 20 days off as of today) within the context of A Scene In Retrospect was a no-brainer given the legendary status of its makers, but it deserves this treatment by its own merits as well. So please allow EIN members Eeli and Vidur to regale you with their personal takes on Murder Ballads.
’And with an ashtray big as a fucking really big brick, I split his skull in half’ – that’s when I burst out laughing, glowered at by other confused passengers in a jam-packed train heading nowhere in the middle of the night. That absurd moment has imprinted itself on my memory quite well, for some reason. I guess you could pseudo-poetically say that the border between my experience and theirs got broken in an odd way, as what was obvious to me was far from that to them, and the situation left all parties equally perplexed. I don’t know what ran through their heads back then, but I certainly know what ran through mine.
It was only five or so years ago when I first stumbled upon the masterwork that is Murder Ballads, even though I recall I first heard of Nick Cave and his extended musical family The Bad Seeds sometime during my early teens. I had this notion that whatever kind of music they performed, it was directed towards a more mature audience, and that it certainly wasn’t meant for me. On multiple occasions, I’ve had these odd notions based on nothing but connotations in random sentences, and the facts that the artists have been playing jazz festivals instead of metal-oriented ones, and I’m not entirely sure where those came from. In other words, I was a dumb kid back then. I’m not saying I’d be any more than that today, but at least I’ve been able to expand my musical peripherals to somewhat of a reasonable degree.
That said, I still think that there was a trace of truth in those sentiments, specifically in the one about Cave’s output being directed to an adult audience by default. The way I see it, Cave’s very essence is built around the concept of tragedy and pitch-black humour. Not only are those usually wildly inappropriate for younger folk, the context and ideas behind them get extremely easily lost for a juvenile brain. Appreciation stems from experience, which in turn is gained only from living itself. Now, I’m not obviously saying that since I’m older now, I’ve lived through the bar brawls, murder investigations, and throbbing, mindless violence that make up the majority of the concepts found on Murder Ballads, not to that extent at least. What I mean is simply that the perception of those things needs to be developed and properly contained in order to make out most of the topic at hand, and to understand it.
Even though the subject matters are unbelievably dark and vicious, I remember smiling throughout the entire duration of the album when I first heard it, however peculiar that may sound. It just hit all the right spots in the right ways, and despite the fatigue and exhaustion dominating my body during that seemingly endless ride in the filthy wagon filled with drunks and egoistic upper-class popinjays, I felt good. And that exact feeling is what Murder Ballads is able to convey every single time I put it on. Every single time, it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time, discovering all its nuances and details over and over again, never getting tired of the jarring monotony executed by means of folk and blues, with an intriguing variety of instruments and tones. The spirit of punk is similarly present throughout, rocking the carriage whenever you least expect it. Related to the performance in question, at this point I’d like to mention that even though I’m mainly name-dropping Cave, his ensemble did nothing short of a stellar job with every single aspect audible here, and I applaude every and each one of them for it.
Dynamically, Murder Ballads shifts from subtlety and nothing but spoken word into a vast mass of noise and driving staves with ease, as the hour’s runtime contains marvellous amounts of intricacies and tonal layers, all ready to be explored and experienced at your convenience. The album exists solely in a world of its own, which was, rather fittingly, built around the frames of the song ”O’Malley’s Bar”, which I referenced in the first sentence. This over-fourteen-minute epic is a lesson in passion mirrored through violence, murder, and an irredeemable protagonist out of his damn mind, who you somehow find yourself advocating for even though you know very fucking well that this man is the epitome of evil, committing inexcusable acts of malice out of spite and nothing more.
Cave’s narration comes off as meticulously descriptive and highly vibrant, yet there’s a thin sheet of arrogance and vanity between every few plies of this exceptional structure. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not a bad thing at all, but quite the contrary. Managing to sound like a relatable prick introduces such honesty and tangible cruel emotion to the mix that you actually forget that these songs are first and foremost stories, even though some of them are based on real events and real people. The second track, ”Stagger Lee”, is a good example of the latter, being inspired by an African-American murderer of the same name to a significant degree. Despite the subject matter, the song advances with an upbeat pace and a bonafide reggae feel. This uncanny blend of contrasts is perhaps the most important aspect in constituting the very fabric of Murder Ballads, and Nick Cave as an artist altogether.
The ingrained absurdity reaches it’s peak on the briskly lulling ”Lovely Creature”, and the following song ”Where the Wild Roses Grow”. The latter is a touching duet with Kylie Minogue, and was the lead single for the album. Undoubtedly the most famous one from the bunch, the track drew inspiration from the traditional song ”The Willow Garden”, of which a personal rendition was included on the B-side of the single release. There’s also no doubt that a whole lot of people who bought the album based on this song alone were dumbfounded when the rest of the effort unveiled itself as a torturous creature relying on macabre narration, rather than just being filler material with no other purpose than to make a bed for this pre-determined high moment. Regardless, Murder Ballads was met with concerted praise and acclaim, and deservedly so.
On an extraordinary amount of events someone has asked me that if I were to pick a single song or an album from another artist that I would’ve written or performed instead, I invariably present them with either this album as an entirety or the aforementioned ”O’Malley’s Bar” as an individual pick. While that question is of course senseless, it’s during those moments when I realize how big of an impact Murder Ballads has actually had on me and my psyche. There’s no sensation or emotion that wouldn’t be dealt with on this album, nor is there even brief moments of futile air or idling to be found on it. If you still feel that way for some unfathomable reason, I’d advice you to give it some time and then try again, as it’s worth it. If you repeatedly find yourself baffled and can’t wrap your head around it, then it’s a possibility that you will never get into it. But if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here reading this ridiculous fanfare, would you now?
Murder Ballads turns 25 next month, so there’s no time like the present to indulge with it. I was eight months old when it was released, and granted that it took about twenty years for it to reach my ear canals, I can say with elitist glee and firm confidence that it’ll never leave them, not as long as I have a say in it at least.
My journey with the Australian rock artist Nick Cave is relatively new. I first discovered Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in 2016 with what was their sixteenth studio album, Skeleton Tree, and I only became an ardent fan with 2019’s double album Ghosteen. Ever since, I have been digging into the older works, becoming more enchanted by the sheer variety of outputs. But none come close to their mid-’90s work, Henry’s Dream, Let Love In, and Murder Ballads, delivering a carnage of love that holds value to date. The last of the trio, Murder Ballads, exquisitely bringing together profane lyrics and pompous musicianship. A poetic yet accessible record that probably has defined Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds‘ sound over the last quarter of a century.
For those not familiar with the record, it does not take a lot to guess the theme on Murder Ballads – these are folksy murder ballads, given the alternative, gothic treatment on the 90’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds sound. The album is the band’s most successful commercial record to date, likely due to the duet with Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue on “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. While the song does not fit the mainstream pop song structure and does have a grim element to it – it is by far the most accessible song on the album, and quite different from the rest of the record. Even comparing it to the other duet on the album, “Henry Lee,” and the latter has much stronger smoldering darkness underneath the smooth choruses with PJ Harvey and is probably more in place on Murder Ballads.
The biggest strength of Murder Ballads, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in general, is the detailed story-telling that suits Cave’s dramatic speaking/singing vocal delivery. “Stagger Lee” is probably one of the most vivid and grotesque Western-style songs ever written. With muddy roads and buckets of blood, the foul-mouthed piece retains its ability to make the listener squirm to this day. But the spotlight must be reserved for the 14-and-half-minute masterpiece “O’Malley’s Bar.” In a background of bass lines and light percussion and accompanied by hard-hitting piano notes, Cave narrates a poetic story of a mass-murder at O’Malley’s bar, all from the criminal’s perspective. Some twelve unfortunate (fictional) victims meet their vividly described end on “O’Malley’s Bar,” and each gunshot moment makes the track even more ingrained in the listener’s memory.
Murder Ballads. You get just that from this album. The stories are grim and violent, but when delivered by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they are beyond beautiful. If you are already a fan of their recent works, I would highly recommend delving into their 90s output – you will only come out with even more appreciation. If this is your first time, please don’t start here; you will only listen to this era and miss many other exquisite tales the band has weived over the years. Either way, whenever you decide to take a bite of the red crimson cake that is Murder Ballads, just remember that death is not the end.
What are your thoughts on/experiences with Murder Ballads? Are you a fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and if so, what’s your favorite album of theirs? Do you have any records you’d like to recommend for inclusion in A Scene In Retrospect? Leave it all in the comments if you feel like sharing!