Murder Ballads - CD of the Week (4 out of 5)

Reviewed by [Author Unknown]

Subj:Murder Review/Guardian Jan 96
Date:96-01-30 (Oliver Duke-Williams)

The following review was by Caroline Sullivan, in the Guardian dated 26/1/96. I think it's quite interesting, and inevitably touches on the subject of misogyny, which we've argued about on the list in the past. I find it interesting that the reviewer defends an album that is otherwise '...nasty, fairly misogynistic and amoral...' on the quality of the lyrics, which contrasts with standard defence (by music writers in general) of gansta rap albums, which on the whole tend to be nasty, fairly (or should that be very?) misogynistic and amoral, but rarely display decent lyrics, that they're OK because they are relections of the street-life of LA or wherever.


An album of songs about killing is probably a logical progression in a career that's been devoted to exploring the darkest side of human nature. If the idea seems unhealthy and/or disgusting, it is, but you have to give Nick Cave credit - he's expended so much care on this one that it will stand as the definitive collection of Murder Ballads.

According to him, the idea had been germinating for some time. "There were these songs that were written that were too long and too strange to put on a legitimate record, so the idea was to make a record to accommodate them .. our society is such that I can understand people committing acts like [murder]. In a way, it's a legitimate spiritual quest ... a way of getting a bit of meaning into their lives."

This attitude is characteristic. In 17 years as a singer and writer, Cave has never been able to tear himself away from spectacles of horror. His nine albums with the Bad Seeds have centred on his fascination with the damaged and the marginalised. Usually writing in the first person, he has achieved the occasional tour de force, such as The Mercy Seat, a vivid impression of a condemned killer's last few minutes.

Thus Murder Ballads is not the shock it would have been had it come from, say, Kylie Minogue (who - far greater shock - actually appears on two songs). Musically, too, it doesn't veer from the territory Cave has made his own, a mixture of ancient-sounding American blues and folk spiced with a little indie-guitar from the venerable Blixa Bargeld.

What differentiates the record from it predecessors is the higher violence quotient and the lack of moral judgements on the songs' characters. Here, you'd have thought, was a prime opportunity for Cave to unleash his Calvinistic views on sin and redemption, but no. The murderers' motives are also generally unexplained. The closest he comes to doing so is the 15-minute O'Malley's Bar. A guy goes into his local bar and shoots the customers, all of which is lovingly detailed - you'd swear Cave gets a kick out of lines like "The bullet entered through the top of his chest/And blew his bowels out on the floor" - and at the end, the killer sees his reflection in the mirror behind the bar and boasts, "There stands some kind of man".

Otherwise, Cave doesn't impose morality or rationale. In, say, Where The Wild Roses Grow, a woman (Minogue at her most virginal) is inexplicably battered to death by her lover (sad to say, this repellent ditty is also incredibly pretty); in an expletive-laden adaptation of the blues standard Stagger Lee, the "hero" shoots anyone who irritates him, then rapes a man just for the hell of it.

The whole album is nasty, fairly misogynistic and amoral. So what validates Murder Ballads? The language does, partly. Cave is steeped in (mainly) American literary tradition, and his lyrics can read like Hemingway or like folk poems. Every song is a riveting story, and they're not without humour. Finally, one feels a sneaking admiration for Cave for not attempting to justify himself by psychobabbling that it's actually a reflection of our collective psyche. Nick Cave simply loves not just peering into, but actually entering, the abyss.

Reviewed by [Author Unknown], rated 4 stars out of 5.


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