In 1996, Nick Cave, the velvety dark genius from Warracknabeal, Australia, released his ninth studio album with The Bad Seeds, his band at the time. It was an album titled simply Murder Ballads, in which, from a very high literature – more than songs, what it contained were powerfully musical stories – reinvented a genre, that of ballad of murders, O killer ballad, whose beginnings are frankly distant. It is said that the first of these terrifying compositions came from Scandinavia when the music could not yet be recorded and that they gradually spread and mutated in the Anglo-Saxon-speaking countries. His intention was both the same as that of any novel or horror film, that is, to terrorize, and that of the a noir It is a sobering lesson that has reflected how, over time, the ways of killing as well as those of executing murderers have varied.
The way in which Cave fixed the new format, especially thanks to the cuts in which Kylie Minogue and PJ Harvey participated, two dark universes in themselves that raised the album to the category of classic, made that, from then on, the result of almost any duo – male / female – who whispered cryptic or unpleasant verses in a song would tend to be confused with a murder ballad. Nothing could be further from the truth. The murder ballad it has a terrifying story behind it. Like the one behind each of those songs. And it is constantly rewritten. For instance, Where the Wild Roses Grow, the song that Cave sang with Minogue, is a reworking of Down in the Willow Garden, an old woman murder ballad. What was it about? Of a guy who woos a girl and kills her when they’re together.
Murder Ballads was the first hit Nick Cave’s global career, which was said to be “a collection of macabre photographs” that distilled “a single image of death” through “macabre fables.” Let us think about Henry Lee, the song he performed alongside PJ Harvey, who, rock gossip through, was said at the time, was dating Cave, which would explain how electrifying the chemistry the song exudes. Henry Lee she was also an old woman murder ballad reinterpreted. In it, the murderer was the lover of this Henry Lee, who could not bear the jealousy he felt when Henry Lee was with another. He killed him one night, cornering him against a fence and stabbing him with a handful of stabs. What Cave and Harvey build is a malevolently terrifying romantic fairy tale, in the classic sense, the irrationally wild one.
But it had not always been this way. For example, on that album, Cave reformulates, from an unhealthy masculinity, the classic Stagger Lee by Lloyd Price, the first song that, after being censored, became number one. That one, although it narrated the crude murder of a guy by shooting, had the tone of the naive rock ‘n’ roll of the 50s – it was recorded in 1959 – and you would say that was the format, then, of any murder ballad. Knoxville Girl, in the 1956 version of The Louvin Brothers, is hardly a laconic country by saloon. And something more sophisticated is the version of the same nasty murder story that Benny Martin did, and that placed the victim in Tennessee, hence he called her The Wexford Girl. Louisville band Vandaveer rerecorded their own version in 2013, on an album packed with other murder ballads. He titled it: Oh, Willie, please…
His alt country for two voices reinterprets the classics at the same time and grants Cave, from a distance, his opportune commitment to the duo. An excellent example, and in a sense, Christmas, and almost charming, is The Murder of Lawson Family, in which the perfect husband kills first his wife and then six of his seven children, and no, nobody put him in jail, because the one who judged him was the devil himself, there, in some other place where, he says, his problems were finally over. It is based on a real case. It happened in 1929. Among the classics also covered by Vandaveer is Pretty Polly, which blurs the history of Knoxville Girl to be even more cruel to the victim. The not very scary Sam Amidon, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, signed his own approach to such a horrendous crime on his latest album. But we shouldn’t go that far. Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen, the entire album, is a dive into the lives of criminals, too, like the theme that gives the album its name, even murderous couples.
Since, at the time they landed in the United States, the murder ballads took the form of old songs from the far west —Many of them were born during that time, like legends that were being sung from one town to the next to frighten the few neighbors who were not yet frightened — it is towards the americana that is laid out when one of them is created or recreated. Even the Everly Brothers, masters of the first soul, they stuck to genre to record Down in the Willow Garden, by Charlie Monroe, the song from which Cave started to sign the classic that he signed with Kylie Minogue in Murder Ballads, and that Holly Hunter sings, like a lullaby, to the baby that she and her husband kidnap in Arizona Baby. And the ever great Kristin Hersh, ex Throwing Muses, updates a 19th century theme, Poor Ellen Smith, which includes, not only the crime, but the trial of the murderer.
Of course, with the passage of time, and the sophistication of the murders, it is clear that the concept murder ballad it could have evolved, and in a sense, it has. Yes one murder ballad it is just a song in which a murder is related, it could be included in that category from I Just Shot John Lennon, de The Cranberries, hasta August 7, 4:15 by Jon Bon Jovi —a song also based on a real case that touched him very closely, that of the disappearance of a friend’s daughter, who was found murdered—, and of course, I Don’t Like Mondays, from The Boomtown Rats —with a story about the 1979 school shooting by a 16-year-old girl— and why not even Bellyacheby Billie Eilish, but there is some of the murder ballad that it will always need the depth and part of the ferocity, nor that it be contained, that it contains, for example, Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, which reached its status as murder ballad in the famous Unplugged in New York of Nirvana.
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‘Murder Ballads’, or how to kill singing | Babelia