Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Revisit: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Murder Ballads (1996)

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Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

Murder has long been a central character in Nick Cave's albums. Acts of bloodshed frequently drip from his songs, often with very little subtlety and usually with no apologies or sense of remorse from its killing hands. Heads are wrapped in pillowcases, flies hum and buzz around mad John Finn's carved-up corpse outside a sweaty and seedy dancehall, a shit-broke booze hound is comforted by a fantasy of a woman groaning in the dirt as she finally dies of thirst. Still it wasn't until 1996's Murder Ballads where Cave set aside his other lyrical preoccupations to singularly focus on this topic. The album blends songs penned by Cave and sundry Bad Seeds with traditional songs that are drastically reworked or bludgeoned, depending on one's point of view. Taken as a whole, the album fits nicely within the bizarre and often surreal world of such murder songs.

The old-timey "Henry Lee" is sung as a duet with PJ Harvey and features a flittering piano arrangement, with the poor Henry Lee, content with his true love "in that merry green land," refusing a woman's advances and paying for his faithfulness as she offs him with a penknife. Although written by Cave, "Where the Wild Roses Grow" contains some well-worn decades-old motifs: a murder whose motives are uncertain and an incredibly naïve and innocent girl who describes her final moments from beyond the grave. A duet with Kylie Minogue, the track relies on strings to set the mood for its account of a strangely poetic killer and his target. Its events echo those of much older songs- "Ommie Wise" immediately comes to mind - as the man sweet talks the virgin-for-not-much-longer Eliza Day and eventually kills her for no reason other than his belief that "all beauty must die."

If the thematic elements of "Wild Roses" are ripped from the pages of a dusty 1920s music folio, "The Kindness of Strangers" is the album's most contemporary and unsettling track. Starkly framed by Conway Savage's piano, the song recounts the final moments of the prophetically-named Mary Bellows, a small-town Arkansas girl who leaves home to see the ocean - big aspirations - and meets the mysterious Richard Slade. Soon after she's dead, "Cuffed to the bed/ With a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head." Though the killer is never named, we can only assume it's Slade, perhaps enraged that Mary refused his sexual advances. The young girl is a true victim in the most tragic sense; Anita Lane cries in the background as Cave details the murder almost like as a journalist, both of whom successfully avoid being overwrought and melodramatic. The effect is chilling and the song ranks among Cave's darkest and most emotional.

Other songs batter the listener with the chaos, noise and gothic arrangements for which Cave and the Bad Seeds are best known. A parade of psychopathic butchers tears through large parts of Murder Ballads, leaving a bloody trail of carnage in their wake. In some cases these killers are so exaggerated that it's hard not to view them as comical caricatures or as Cave's way of upending the intense seriousness and social commentary found in many folk ballads. In "The Curse Of Millhaven," little 14-year old Loretta, with her green eyes and yellow hair, is a peerless and indiscriminate embodiment of evil as she offs Handyman Joe with a circular saw and places his severed head in the mayor's fountain, burns the town to the ground ("a wee little girl with a can of gasoline") and generally makes a nuisance of herself. The song's circus organ swirls and overly dramatic choir suggest it isn't meant to be taken at face value, in sharp contrast to "The Kindness Of Strangers." Likewise, the 14-minute splatter fest of "O'Malley's Bar" includes an over the top villain whose actions play like something out of a lousy Dean Koontz novel or laughably gory slasher film. It's a delicate balancing act between pastiche and tastelessness, yet everything about the song - its sad-sack bar patrons, an overly verbose yet philosophical perpetrator who's apparently well versed in biblical saints, Cave's vocal delivery against the Bad Seed's stutter-stop instrumentation - hints that its excessive death toll is meant not to frighten or give scathing social commentary about a violent society. Instead, it's meant to evoke at least some laughter, albeit uneasily and even if the listener feels like a soulless bastard for laughing at such things.

The tone is decidedly different on "Song Of Joy" and "Stagger Lee;" the first two tracks on the album, they're also the album's most provocative songs. While artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and The Clash have each interpreted the story of Stagger Lee and his killing of Billy Lyons - supposedly over a goddamn Stetson hat - none match Cave's vulgar, F-bomb-laden version. Built around a stabbing piano, Blixa Bargeld's and Mick Harvey's tense guitars and eventual gun shots after Stag's dirty deeds have been done and drawing from an obscure transcription, the song imagines the man as a divorced Depression-era drifter, sexual deviant and supreme badass. Here the fabled Stetson hat is already in Stag's possession before anyone is murdered; in a further break from both these older versions and historical accounts of the event, Lyons is reworked as the hapless Billy Dilly, either the pimp or boyfriend of a local prostitute. In Cave's version the hat is incidental; Stag kills the bartender in a test of just who the biggest hardass is and then kills Billy while being orally pleasured by him. No motive is given. While previous songs and books have offered everything from a wronged sense of honor to political differences between Stag and Lyons to a combination of alcohol and macho boasting as the catalyst for their dispute, here Stag seemingly kills simply because he enjoys it.

"Song Of Joy" is terrifying as hell and one of the Bad Seeds' best ensemble performances. Its tension builds slowly and never really recedes, first established by Cave's almost symphonic piano melody, Bargeld's understated guitar and a menacing atmosphere maintained by Martyn Casey's and Mick Harvey's rhythm. What unfolds is the narrator's tale of how his wife and three children - Hilda, Hattie and Holly, nice alliteration - were brutally murdered by a John Milton-quoting killer who's still on the lam. Coupled with Cave's sinister spoken word vocals, it's immediately apparent that this man might be something far different from the mourning husband and father he portrays himself as. His alibi is shady and probably complete bullshit, his arrival on the doorstep of a "family man" is accompanied by howling wolves and hissing serpents, and like the murderer he quotes Milton more extensively than Donald Sutherland. Practically every lyric can be read with drastically opposite meanings - "all things moved toward their end," "my bones are cold right through" - and the listener is left to determine what happens next as the song ends. Given all the bloodlust that follows as the album progresses, one can only hope this family man locked his door that night.

Though Murder Ballads might not be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' best work, it is their most focused and as close to a conceptual album as they've come. It pays homage to the spirit and subjects of the often fascinating and morbid world of traditional ballads while its original songs likewise fit within this scope like few other modern songs. It's a dark and darkly comic world in Murder Ballads, where its killers are variously frightening and unbelievable, and its victims, most of them anyway, are viewed with empathy, pity and sorrow.

1 comment:

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