Twenty-five years are those that have already elapsed since Nick Cave publish “Murder Ballads”. A concept album around the murder, which forces us to delve, to begin this article, in a small history class. Here we go.
A bit of previous history
Although the Australian’s name, thanks to this album and his twilight style, has been associated, at least since the moment of its publication – February 1996 – with the genre of ‘murder ballads’, the truth is that it had many, many more years. It is true that in the United States it is usually associated with folk, country and somewhat less blues, but its origin seems to be in Europe, in the middle of the seventeenth century. England, Scotland, Ireland and the Nordic countries were riddled with troubadours who soon discovered that their audience paid much more attention to them if the subjects they were dealing with were sordid murders.
What is absolutely true is that the name of murder ballad It doesn’t happen until immigrants cross the pond and spread their culture throughout North America. Because there, although they sometimes seem like it, they weren’t idiots either, and soon they also realized that the thing, at the public level, worked. When the songs played by the early country or folk singers talked about blood, severed heads, shots from the back and the like, the audience would be wide-eyed. You just had to complete the song by ensuring that it was based on a real event – ninety percent of the time it was like that, even if it was modified or exaggerated – to have a bunch of gawking rednecks listening to those amazing stories that, why fool ourselves , they were not too far away.
The murder ballad, therefore, is especially consolidated in the Deep South (where else?). And not only that, but it becomes a recurring genre that gives results not only in the form of songs, but also in concept records. Although it would take an Australian in full swing of grunge and American, to make the most famous of them all.
Are you crazy? A record about murders?
In an interview published in 2011 by With Guitars magazine, which appeared on the occasion of the reissue of “Murder Ballads”, Nick Cave remember its genesis. “I have always liked writing narrative songs and I have always especially liked writing about murder and violence. It had been three years since I had written two minor songs, one called ‘O’Malley’s Bar’, which was fifteen minutes long and something like 40 verses and another song called ‘Song Of Joy’, which was also very long. Maybe too long to fit properly on any of our other records. What we really did was make a record where these two songs fit together comfortably, so we did it around the rather spurious theme of murder. This was a multi-functional record in the sense that it was necessary for me for many reasons: One, we wanted to make a record that was literally impossible to tour with. The songs just wouldn’t work live, so that meant we didn’t have to tour to present the record. The other thing was that I felt an incredible pressure to have to overcome the last album that we had done; make a better one, which I think we basically did. I wanted to make a record that was enjoyable to make, that was open to other musicians to come and do exactly what they wanted to do and also to do a lot of duets. “.
Better explained impossible. Between 1993 and 1995, Nick Cave he is recording the songs that will make up the album, with a marked conceptual component from the beginning. He is accompanied as a base band by his Bad Seeds, then Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Martyn P. Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wylder. To them, as the author himself commented many years later, are joined by a lot of sought after collaborations, including those of PJ Harvey, Kylie Minogue, Warren Ellis, Hugo Race, Shane MacGowan or Brian Hooper.
The one from Warracknabeal (Victoria) composes almost all the songs or contributes his grain of sand by rewriting classic texts such as “Stagger Lee” O “Henry Lee”, he gets horny versioning the “The death is not the end” by Bob Dylan as the ending, and choose as the first single “Where the wild roses grow”, sung in duet with Kylie Minogue. But let’s not move on.
The songs, the crimes
The album begins with one of the two songs that Cave recognizes as the origin of the idea, “Song Of Joy”. The thing has its joke. A guy is explaining to a stranger how his wife and son were murdered, and he ends up confessing his crime by mistake. Almost nothing. “Stagger Lee” it is immense, wild, raw. With gun sounds included. One of the high points of the album. The next step is “Henry Lee” with PJ Harvey as company, something that would make the next few months more “close” as they would become a couple. The chemistry was evident, and although the song is a revision of Scottish original “Young Hunting”, Cave and Harvey make it totally theirs.
For his part “Lovely Creature” fulfills its function of subtracting brusqueness from the album. It is less transcendent, but not for that reason inferior, and for many and many it is among their favorites on the album thanks to those disturbing female backing vocals and the almost talkin’blues phrasing. The aforementioned continues “Where the Wild Roses Grow”. You weren’t expecting the collaboration with mainstream pop star Kylie Minogue to work, but it does. Comparisons with the duet with PJ Harvey happen, and there is something for everyone. Difficult to choose one, because both work perfectly, and the voice of Minogue puts a splendid contrast to such a gory track.
To continue the second longest theme of the entire work, “The Curse of Millhaven” located in the nonexistent city created by the writer Peter Straub tells the story of Loretta, a true serial killer. In principle it was going to be the song that PJ Harvey sang, but the thing ended up being decided by “Henry Lee”.
On “The Kindness Of Strangers” highlights the piano of Conway Savage, the guitar of Mick Harvey and the haunting scream of Anita Lane. “Crow Jane” it would be moved around in later reissues and is often the least remembered song on the album. Maybe because behind her appears that mazacote that is “O’Malley’s Bar” with its fourteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds of duration, and in which it dies until the prompter. A specific and accurate ode to murder. Now we understand Cave when he assures us that this song was not seen on any other album that was not one created specifically to host it.
And before so much transcendence, it does not hurt to end in a more or less comical way. To do this, Cave chooses surprisingly, but at the same time correctly, “The Death Is Not The End”, one of the best songs of the weak “Down In The Groove” by Bob Dylan. A theme of hope, which shows the last bits and pieces of the Christian Dylan and which refers, from its title, to the biblical book of Isaiah. Some light amid so much darkness or sarcasm in vein? Perhaps more the latter, since Nick has been taking things with a certain ironic perspective throughout the album.
An egregious success
Few albums have been received in the history of rock music with the unanimity of this “Murder Ballads”. For once, the press and the public agreed. Rolling Stone defined it as “the best interpretation of Cave’s life ”. Musically, the New York Times described him as “A macabre fable that is later distilled into a single image of death, in the same way that a photographer organizes a session”. Spin spoke of “Sordid epics and dark confessionals”. Q, for his part, from “cabaret jazz, country rhythm morbidity and all seasons of bad humor ”. His mix of styles is thus evident. And the charts also seemed to understand it, thus giving it more value. In any case, a sublime album.
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Nick Cave, Murder Ballads 25th Anniversary Special (2021)