In anticipation of Nick Cave’s new album, Skelton Tree, being released this Friday September 9, we look back at his ninth solo album, Murder Ballads, which turned 20 years old this year. To commemorate the anniversary we delve into the bloodthirsty record where death lurks around every corner and murder is the language everybody speaks in…
Murder ballads were first noted in 17th century Europe, when the lower class sections of society used to indulge in their tales of murder and deception. Tom Waits described them as “just a cut above graffiti,” as they documented killings in stark and gruesome detail purely for entertainment purposes. They were seen as nothing more than “the oral tabloids of the day,” as Waits then succinctly put it.
Murder ballads were nothing new in music when Cave reconvened his band, The Bad Seeds, back in 1996. But when they hit the studio to record the songs, which he had been writing ever since the Let Love In sessions two years prior, they stumbled upon a winning formula.
“I really didn’t want to have anything more to do with examining my own misfortunes,” Cave revealed about the initial thought processes around the album.
In place of the yearning and romantic overtures which were laced throughout its predecessor, Murder Ballads proved to be a more hard boiled affair that revelled in the historical narratives of bloodthirsty ballads.
The album opens with the haunting accompaniment of piano along with a narrator as he retells the story of a man whose wife and three children were brutally murdered. Song of Joy proves to be an eerie opening as the tension is built up slowly, while a “hungry kitchen knife” threatens to kill Hilda, Haddy and Holly at any time.
“They never caught the man, he’s still on the loose,” the narrator warns the man whose door he has knocked upon in the first place. His foot edges up on the step while the moon hangs above and various creatures lurk behind them where the light can’t reach. There’s a final reference to a “red right hand” before the narrator seems to morph into the murderer with each and every line that follows, as he tries to force his way inside upon the conclusion.
The slinking Stagger Lee then enters into the picture holding a deck of cards and with his trusty Colt .45 strapped to his hip. He lurches towards a bar suitably called “The Bucket of Blood” and immediately starts to get into a fight with the bartender. The standoff inevitably ending with Lee shooting him dead.
Prostitutes and gunslingers all linger around on the peripheries of the story, while the stale stench of ale hangs in the air. But it is a woman who catches the killer’s attention above all else – Nellie Brown. “She saw the barkeep and said ‘oh god he can’t be dead.’ Stag said ‘well just count the holes in the motherfucker’s head.’” Perhaps the most unique pick-up line used in a bar anywhere, ever.
PJ Harvey, Cave’s then-girlfriend, then takes over as she uses a pen knife to murder the title character in Henry Lee. “Come take him by his lily white hands, come take him by his feet, and throw him in this deep, deep well that’s more than one hundred feet,” she sings with an unnerving calmness as she disposes of the body. However, it is Cave’s duet with another female artist, Kylie Minogue, that stole the show on Murder Ballads.
The spellbinding Where The Wild Roses Grow sees Cave and Minogue exchange verses as two lovers engage in a flirtation that, of course, eventually ends in murder. Inspired by the 19th century traditional song The Willow Garden, Cave lured Minogue to duet on it with him, somewhat mirroring the killer and victim dynamic that is present within the song.
The single, backed with beautiful sweeping strings, helped earn Cave an MTV nomination for “Best Male Artist” while it also broke the Top Ten in a number of charts around Europe. Somewhat strangely, Murder Ballads even became the band’s most successful album to date on the back of the song’s popularity.
After Minogue’s exit the listener is then introduced to the small town of Millhaven and a young girl known as Loretta, who prefers to go by the name of Lottie. The town is gripped by a curse whereby residents seemingly just keep on meeting severely unfortunate endings.
Backed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Cave depicts the sweet little Lottie as she lays out all the gruesome deaths with disparaging detail. The galloping drums and drunken sing-along style chorus working perfectly with the deranged ramblings of Lottie, as it’s soon revealed she is in fact the mass-murderer that is terrifying the town.
“I’ve got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming,” she assures us as the confessions come thick and fast. Yet despite all the murders it is her wild lack of remorse and thorough enjoyment of “Rorschach and Prozac” that makes her an oddly enjoyable character.
“I woke up one morning hungover at a hotel swimming pool in Germany. There was a party going on — a bunch of holidaymakers doing whatever those sorts of people do. But doing it very noisily. I didn’t really have the energy to be able to get up off the banana lounge and find my room. So instead I wrote a song and gave the holidaymakers names and described them and, well, executed them on the page,” Cave said about the beginnings of the album’s undoubted centrepiece O’Malley’s Bar.
The scene: a tall, thin man enters into the bar with a hankering for a drink. He is well known around the parts as people sit at their tables barely raising a curious eye at him. The bartender pours him a drink from off the back shelf, which is when he decides it is time to reach into his jacket and pull out his gun. With one quick shot he brings his victim crashing down into a pool of his own blood. Utter carnage then follows in the gruesome next 12 minutes as the killer casually strolls through the bar picking off his neighbourhood victims at will.
The sprawling bloodbath is written like a kind of screenplay rather than a song. The narrative arc weaving around a loathsome self-obsessed coward who murders simply because he can. The images are all piled on top of each other like snapshots of a crime scene. However, it is the little details within these images that really elevates the song and the narrative. “Her head landed in the sink with all the dirty dishes” and “with an ashtray big as a fucking really big brick, I split his skull in half” are lines of such gruesome yet ridiculous detail that you can’t help but find them funny.
“I think the reason it is funny is because it is gruesome,” Cave told Rolling Stone back when the album was released. “It is so relentlessly gruesome that it can’t be taken seriously.”
The album ends with a Bob Dylan cover of Death Is Not The End which is as odd as it sounds on an album that is rife with murder, torture, rape and adultery up until that point. The legendary bar room lizard himself, Shane McGowan, even stops by to contribute a verse. While Minogue and Harvey are amongst some others who all join in for one last hurrah.
The body count is staggering and the lyrics explicit throughout on Murder Ballads but what it does so well is reflect people’s curiosity with the darker parts of humanity. While it is so over the top it becomes cartoonish in its violence at times, twenty years on it still packs a considerable punch.
It is narratively and conceptually heavy and requires a certain kind of stomach and concentration to withstand its barrages, but if you can then the submersion into the album can be a thoroughly rewarding one. From the windswept Lovely Creature to the deep bass crawl of Crow Jane and the broken dreams of The Kindness of Strangers, the album still stands as a stark reminder of just how deranged and gruesome the world can be.
Image: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds