|1. Song of Joy|
|2. Stagger Lee|
|3. Henry Lee|
|4. Lovely Creature|
|5. Where The Wild Roses Grow|
|6. Curse of Millhaven|
|7. Kindness of Strangers|
|8. Crow Jane|
|9. O'Malley's Bar|
|10. Death Is Not The End|
Naturally, these releases are aimed at newcomers as much as they are long-standing admirers of Cave et al – the extras will appeal to the latter group, but all four albums are worth the time of an absolute beginner. Murder Ballads makes for a testing starting point though, as the frontman and his cohorts deliver an uncompromised vision of savage violence, presented in such detail that the squeamish are advised to skip to its heavy-hearted but PG-rated follow-up. But The Bad Seeds have always been about drama, about death and lust; about messing around with people that aren’t to be messed around with, chasing skirt that will only lead a man to madness. So why not take the plunge? Murder Ballads represents the very darkest depths of the band’s 90s output.
Two tracks from this set appear on the group’s 1998 best-of, and both are duets. The first, Henry Lee, features Cave’s ex-partner PJ Harvey – their break-up would inspire a number of songs on The Boatman’s Call. The second is Cave’s biggest UK hit single to date: Where the Wild Roses Grow, featuring Kylie Minogue. The pint-sized star’s presence does go some way towards explaining the song’s commercial success; but its video, included here, also played a significant part. A striking work inspired by John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia, it sees Cave’s character lay Minogue’s to rest in a shallow pond after killing her with a rock (unsurprisingly, that part of the story isn’t shown). It’s a piece of pop history which retains its haunting quality to this day.
And there’s plenty more brilliance where those two came from. Stagger Lee is one of the finest foul-mouthed songs ever committed to tape, a swaggering tale of prostitutes and pistols, muddy roads and bloody murder – don’t listen to it in the car when taking your mum shopping. O’Malley’s Bar is novel-like in its detail of a furious killing spree. It’s an endurance test at over 14 minutes long, but not a second is wasted, Cave rambling with glee as the song’s antagonist sets about his wicked work. Opener Song of Joy is an unsettling curtain-up – it’s never completely clear whether the John Milton-quoting narrator has killed his own children or, in fact, he’s fleeing a similar fate.
The title says it all, really: Murder Ballads. You get just that and, given the musicians at work, everything’s expectedly brilliant. The extras, including talking-head contributions from St Vincent’s Annie Clark, photographer Steve Gullick and BBC Music reviewer Luke Turner (among various Bad Seeds, musicians and critics), are simply the sweetest icing on a deliciously crimson cake.
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Don’t let the ‘concept album’ tag put you off though. For this is not a series of odd beeps and thuds. It is certainly the best example of poetry set to music of the last decade. Death might sound like a boring premise; but a subject as broad could never be dull in the hands of someone as talented as Cave. From sad tales (‘Kindness of Strangers’) to the macabre ‘Song Of Joy’ to the downright grotesque ‘Stagger Lee’ the listener is treated to the different faces of The Bad Seeds on this ‘Murder Ballads’.
The opener, ‘Song Of Joy’ is quite unlike any song I have ever heard. Not only it is astoundingly atmospheric (sounding not unlike a Godspeed You Black Emperor track), the story is a chilling tale of murder where clues as to whodunit are cleverly woven into the lyrics. Only a thorough knowledge of John Milton’s work will allow the listener to fully understand it (or, like me you can simply read the liner notes). Not all the songs are as cunning at ‘Song Of Joy’ though. Where the opener is complex and clever so ‘Stagger Lee’ is downright gruesome. Instrumentally the track is reminiscent of Cave’s earlier classic ‘Red Right Hand’ but paints a much more monstrous picture. While it is a remarkable aural experience, it doesn’t seem quite the same without the video where Cave pranced around in a pink Take That tee shirt.
The album’s highlight is the incredible ‘O’Malley’s Bar’. The track certainly has the highest body count on the album. Cave plays an unknown rampant local maniac who slaughters the patrons of his local bar. Musically it remains suitably threatening until its climax and as Cave yells lyrics - the listener can be nothing but in awe. Similarly chaotic is ‘The Curse Of Millhaven’. Here Cave plays the part of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, however ‘Baby One More Time’ this is not. Cave’s character Loretta is, predictably, a deranged young lady who takes pleasure in the decapitation, burning and drowning of the other inhabitants of the town of Millhaven. The track is yet another example of Cave’s uncanny knack of mixing murder with substantial wit.
Somewhere in amongst these maniacal tales come some moments of tenderness. The single ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ probably continues to be Cave’s most well known moment, if only for the inclusion of Kylie Minogue. Similarly ‘Henry Lee’ substitutes Minogue for PJ Harvey, for a slight reworking of the traditional song.
It is hard to qualify ‘Murder Ballads’ as ‘entertainment’ as at times it is very difficult to listen to. Cave adopts the persona of a crazy teenage girl one minute and a homicidal maniac the next, which does make for uncomfortable listening. However, fans of The Bad Seeds or anything slightly off-centre should consider this an essential purchase. I’ve certainly never heard anything like, and I dare say you won’t have either.
I find listening to this album to be quite unsettling, but at the same time blackly comic and almost uplifting. I can't think of another artist who could even hope to pull off this quite amazing feat. From the very morbid "Song of Joy" opening, through the exceptionally foul mouthed "Stagger Lee" and finishing on a re-orked version of "Death is not the end," (featuring guest vocals from the likes of Shane McGowan, Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey) you can't help but be taken aback by it all.
The highlight of the album for me is "Where the Wild Roses grow," which is a duet with Kylie Minogue, (The best song she'll ever do) her voice providing a nice contrast with Cave's own haunting vocals.
This is not Cave's finest work, but it is certainly one of his bravest and though it might not be the first Cd you reach for, it deserves it's place on your shelf alongside all the other Nick Cave albums.
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