Murder He Wrote
Nick Cave's Gruesome Balladry Is All In Good Fun

Request, March 1996

by Tony Lanham
Transcribed by Blake Cotton

As cold and final as the grave, Murder Ballads is the latest blood-spattered dirgefest from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Like a long, plodding funeral procession, the disc moves thematically from bad (Henry Lee, a moody duet with Polly Jean Harvey in which she stabs him to death with a penknife) to worse (Song of Joy, a grim, piano-pumped reflection from a man who's recently slain his family). The set reaches its shadowy zenith on O'Malley's Bar, 14-and-a-half minutes of bloody abandon in a small town pub perpetrated by a pathetic, faceless shmo who guns down each drinker by name and annoying physical attribute. And all of these bony sketches are fleshed out by Cave's trademark cadaverous baritone.

Naturally, it's easy to start Cave talking about hard-boiled writers like Jim Thompson, who's classic The Killer Inside Me tosses you into the mind of a homicidal sheriff for so many chapters you begin to like it there. "That was the great thing about Thompson, how far he could keep you in sympathy with these horrendous kinds of people," Cave says in a chipper voice.

But, heck, let's not misjudge the poor guy. Or his gothic Murder Ballads. Cave insists, "You're not listening to this record in the right way unless you see that there's a broad, healthy sense of fun and playfulness on it. To me, the first thing about this album is that it's funny."

There does seem to be a witty edge to it's coda, a tongue-in-cheek version of Bob Dylan's Death is Not the End, with it's quasi-religious verses doled out by Harvey, Kylie Minogue, and Shane MacGowan. "It was a jokey full-stop to the whole thing," Cave explains. "You may have been shot in the head but don't worry about it: Death is not the end.

"My interest in murder these days is actually very minimal," Cave swears. "This record is called Murder Ballads, but it's the 'ballad' part of the title that is far more important. It's about storytelling, rhyming, the use of language, and murder is the conceptual glue that holds them all together.

"I mean, there are a couple of seriously savage and unforgiving songs here. But the world is a fucked up place, basically. I just hide in my music and watch the world go down the toilet."

Cave's dismal outlook has shrouded his work since 1984's From Her To Eternity, but it was Einstuerzende Neubauten ax man Blixa Bargeld who suggested the Murder Ballads project after hearing O'Malley's Bar, a three year old oddity Cave couldn't find room for on his previous albums. But it was Cave who scripted the Where the Wild Roses Grow video, in which he - long and lean and looking like an undertaker's demented half-brother - caresses Minogue's floating riverside corpse, then pries her mouth open to place a rose between her teeth.

See? The artist who often has sworn that he was born with a tail is really a sensitive fellow at heart. Maybe too sensitive. Like Thompson, Cave sympathizes with many of his Murder Ballads misanthrope. In O'Malley's Bar, I wanted to get the point across of your archetypical nonhuman being that America seems to produce," he says. "As well as the situation where these people who have no identity feel that they have to go to such horrendous lengths to get some meaning to their lives. So there are a lot of mixed emotions in the song: [The killer] thinks he's the winged angel of death, but on the other hand, he is, in fact a moral coward who can't shoot himself at the end."

Cave snickers, low and threatening. "I'm very proud of this particular number. And it was good fun writing, too."


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