Nick Cave can often be quite theatrical, gloomy, obsessed with violence and quite simply over-the-top. Well with 1996’s Murder Ballads, Mr. Cave definitely went over-the-top. Twice. Or Something. Nick Cave’s lyrical topics have always been somewhat of an oddity, oftentimes revolving around death or religion. Here he takes it one step further, taking his morbidity so far that it risks becoming cheesy and pretentious. It may be too much for most people, and definitely is for some, but others might find a humorous, engaging experience in Murder Ballads. It’s somewhat of a hit or miss album, in that so many of the songs rely on far-out lyrics, rather than musical compositions. These are stories. Horrific, harrowing, hideous, sometimes hilarious stories. An example? Well it is epitomized by the – and I count – 37 stanza-long epic, O’Malley’s Bar. Throughout the 14 minutes and 28 seconds of the track the instrumentation is simple and there are few musical variations. Consequently it relies solely on lyrics to keep from getting boring. In some ways this is the ultimate Nick Cave song on the ultimate Nick Cave album, although some of his songs and albums may ultimately be better. Even for those who find it too much, cheesy, silly, stupid or whatever, this album, O’Malley’s Bar in particular, is at least an interesting experience.
Nick Cave does have plenty of compositional talent though, and his baritone suits the sombre mood of the record superbly. To say that the album is only worth getting for its lyrics would definitely be selling it short. Cave’s vocals are superb, and he really gets into character as he spins his tales of death and murder. Instrumentally, the album is primarily driven by a standard outfit of piano, bass, drums and guitar, with the occasional inclusion of organs, horns, strings, accordions, gunshots and screams among other things. The songs are anything but standard rock n’ roll song, seemingly as much to traditional folk or blues songs as contemporary rock music. While the album may be extreme for some in places, there are some undeniably great songs. His duet with Kylie Minogue on ”Where the Wild Roses Grow” is a beautiful ballad, driven by a delicate string seciton, that most people can enjoy, and a definite highlight on the album. Nick Cave often uses female vocals to provide contrast to his sombre baritone. On ”Stagger Lee”, a slow, menacing song, driven by a muted guitar, a repeated bass riff, and the occasional ringing piano chord. Nick Cave sounds more menacing than ever, taking a traditional blues standard and turning into an extreme tale of violence, murder and rape. Allow me to illustrate by comparing a verse of lyrics from the traditional to a verse of Nick Cave’s version.
The traditional blues song:
Stagger Lee... shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so bad
Till the bullet went through Billy
And it broke the bartender's glass.
And Nick Cave’s version. Excuse me for the profanity:
"Yeah, I'm Stagger Lee and you better get down on your knees
And suck my dick, because If you don't you're gonna be dead"
Said Stagger Lee
Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head
And Stag filled him full of lead
This album, the songs "Stagger Lee" and "O’Malley’s Bar" in particular, portrays murder and violence in the most elaborate, extreme manner possible, which causes it to be a rather revolting listen, and certainly not for the faint of heart. The album isn’t, however, just a novelty act, relying on being grotesque instead of being good. The songs generally feel like standard songs that have existed for many years. “Where the Wild Roses Grow” is the only song to have an actual chorus, and this verse-for-verse structure emphasizes on the fact that these tracks are tales as much as they are songs. Though Stagger Lee is the only standard turned grotesque, it feels like this could have been the case with almost all of the other songs, although “O’Malley’s Bar” is too long and twisted to have originated from anywhere else than the mind of someone like Nick Cave. After this harrowing epic you can let out a sigh of relief. The closer is gentle, comforting, cover of Bob Dylan
’s “Death Is Not The End”, a welcome change but out-of-place at the same time. The verses are song by Nick Cave
, PJ Harvey
, Shane MacGowan, Kylie Minogue
, Thomas Wylder, Anita Lane and Blixa Bargeld taking turn. The album might have ended on a stronger note with “O’Malley’s”, but that is up to personal opinion.
So what is my conclusion from all this? I urge you all to check it out, but I can’t guarantee you all to like it. Those of you who don’t find an album you like in Murder Ballads will at least have an interesting experience. I’m still not sure what to rate it. It’s beautiful, original and interesting, but sometimes quite a chore to listen to all the way through in its morbidity and bizarreness. A great album, but certainly not one I would recommend to everyone.