Nick Cave has a warped sense of humour. 20 years ago, the Australian singer-songwriter-bandleader turned his darkest comedic wit to a collection of songs he called Murder Ballads, and the results were spectacular. Weaving gallows humour, macabre imagery, and bizarre poetry into an intoxicating mix, Cave - perhaps inadvertently - created one of the finest albums of his career, and scored his highest-charting single along the way.
As the title suggests, Murder Ballads was in many ways a loving tribute to the dark sub genre of balladry that deals exclusively with horrendous crimes. The album largely consists of original compositions, though Cave also handpicked a few traditional songs in the murder ballad vein, adding his own inimitable touch to most every aspect of those traditional works. Stagger Lee is one such song, in which Cave took a turn-of-the-century American folk song about a real-life bar shooting over the theft of a Stetson hat, and turned it into a sociopathic tale of homosexual rape and murder.
Little of the original folk song, as performed over the course of nearly a century by artists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and Huey Lewis and the News, remained. Cave’s lyrics read like deranged black humour; an unhinged poem from a wild mind: “He said ‘Mr. Motherfucker, you know who I am’/ The barkeeper said, ‘No, and I don’t give a good goddamn’/ To Stagger Lee/ He said, ‘Well bartender, it’s plain to see/ I’m that bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee’/ Mr. Stagger Lee/ Barkeep said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard your name down the way/ And I kick motherfucking asses like you every day’/ Mr. Stagger Lee/ Well those were the last words that the barkeep said/ ’Cause Stag put four holes in his motherfucking head.”
The verses that follow, in which Lee pronounces some of the most darkly hilarious lyrics ever penned for popular music, were an exercise in increasing debauchery and perversion. But it is all presented perfectly - convincingly, even - from the mouth of a man who had lived on the margins of excess and existence and somehow made it through. Eventually, Stagger Lee turns into a deafening punk ballad, full of manic screams and roaring static. In just under four minutes, Cave found the perfect balance between his early-career work with punk provocateurs The Birthday Party, and his tamer late-career Bad Seeds records. Stagger Lee is an enduring masterpiece, and a deserving fan favourite at most any Cave gig.
Henry Lee is another twist on a traditional folk song, though here Cave approached the subject matter with great tenderness, wisely assisted by PJ Harvey for the melancholic, endlessly pretty ballad. The Kindness of Strangers is similarly beautiful; a piano-led original composition about the cruelty of the world and the perils of misplaced trust. Few Cave songs have been as heartbreakingly, humanly raw as Kindness, woven as it is with graphic yet tender details of predatory murder. It is testament to Cave’s singular narrative gift that he can put songs like Stagger Lee, Henry Lee, and The Kindness of Strangers alongside one another without appearing disingenuous.
Yet of the three more-conventional ballads of Murder Ballads, Where the Wild Roses Grow will always be the best-remembered. A duet with Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue, Roses rapidly became Cave’s most popular single, and one of the late-'90s most popular alternative hits. Much of the popular exposure to Cave’s music over the past two decades has come as a result of the initial fanfare that accompanied Roses, mournful and gorgeous as it is. Uniquely combining swaying romantic poetry, string-and-piano-led instrumentation, and subtle allusions to the brutal murder of a young woman, Roses was quite an introduction for many to have to the many-faced music of Nick Cave.
In the wake of Roses’ success, Cave even garnered an MTV nomination for their Best Male Artist award, though the singer promptly requested that MTV withdraw any consideration of his music. In fact, so obvious was Roses’ singular commercial appeal that Cave was quoted at the time in Rolling Stone magazine as saying: "I was kind of aware that people would go and buy the Murder Ballads album and listen to it and wonder ‘What the fuck have I bought this for?’ because the Kylie song wasn’t any true indication of what the record was actually like."
And Cave was right in his suspicions: few who bought Murder Ballads based on the catchy, accessible subtlety of Roses could have been prepared for the disturbing howl of Stagger Lee, the deeply painful reality of The Kindness of Strangers, or the first-person graphic narrative of the terrifying album-opener Song of Joy. On deranged seven-minute, mid-album country-rock rant The Curse of Millhaven, Cave sings from the point of view of a 15-year-old girl: “Then Professor O’Rye from Millhaven High/ Found nailed to his door his prize-winning terrier/ Then next day the old fool brought little Biko to school/ And we all had to watch as he buried her.” As the schoolgirl narrator of the song is gradually revealed to be a psychopathic mass-murderer, die-hard Cave fans were left joyfully entertained, while scores of new listeners brought in by Roses probably felt more than a little confused.
Yet even fans who had been with Cave since the wild Birthday Party era may have been taken aback by the incomparably unhinged penultimate track, 15-minute epic O’Malley’s Bar. It was the first track to be recorded for Murder Ballads, during the final Henry’s Dream sessions. Bubbling with a nervous, kinetic energy, Cave brings a manic possession to his delivery during O’Malley’s Bar, weaving around the slow and jaunty instrumental with every ounce of the gleeful deviance of the song’s protagonist, a deranged mass-shooter inside a busy small-town pub. “I sang and I laughed, I howled and I wept/ I panted like a pup/ I blew a hole in Mrs. Richard Holmes/ And her husband stupidly stood up,” Cave sings on some of the song’s many standout lines. “He screamed, ‘You are an evil man’/ And I paused a while to wonder/ ‘If I have no free will then how can I be morally culpable, I wonder?’/ I shot Richard Holmes in the stomach/ And gingerly he sat down/ And he whispered weirdly, ‘No offense’/ And then lay upon the ground/ ‘None taken’, I replied to him/ To which he gave a little cough/ With blazing wings I neatly aimed/ And blew his head completely off.”
Gradually, Cave’s protagonist recounts the murder of every other person inside the bar. But the song doesn’t end: left alone with his revolver, Cave maniacally mimics wailing police sirens as the authorities surround the building. “There must have been fifty cops out there/ In a circle around O’Malley’s bar/ ‘Don’t shoot’, I cried, ‘I’m a man unarmed!’/So they put me in their car/ And they sped me away from that terrible scene/ And I glanced out of the window/ Saw O’Malley’s bar, saw the cops and the cars/ And I started counting on my fingers.” What follows is a minute and a half of some of the most disturbing scat singing of all time, as the wonderfully in-character Cave does indeed begin to count through his victims.
It takes a particular type of artist to make music quite like this. Few but Nick Cave could ever have been so bold, so original, so daring, so gifted. The pitch-black humour sprinkled throughout Murder Ballads was always destined to appeal to a decidedly limited audience of kindred spirits and Cave-worshippers, but musically, Murder Ballads showed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at their considerable best. Through clever songwriting and inspired lyricism, one of the finest and most unlikely alternative albums of the ’90s was made, standing obliquely in a little corner of its own, partially hidden in the obscure shadows where it belongs.
Criminally underrated, Murder Ballads is a work of genius. Nick Cave owes a huge debt to this album to this day, as his fanbase has swollen on the strengths of these songs. Particular highlights - Stagger Lee, O’Malley’s Bar - have become some of his most rapturously-received live hits, and deservedly so. Taking in a heady mix of disparate 20th century musical stylings, it is undoubtedly musically gorgeous, while at the centre of everything stands Cave; dark, mysterious, charismatic, and just strange enough that he can pull off even the darkest of material.
Besides, who could dislike an album that capped off a collection of visceral, violent ballads with a group-singalong cover of Dylan’s Death Is Not the End? For the finale, Cave brought together Harvey, Minogue, The Pogue’s Shane MacGowan, and many more for an ironic and weirdly sincere take on the ’80s original. “When you search in vain to find/ Just one law abiding citizen,” they all sing together, “Just remember that death is not the end.”
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