Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads



by Sepstrup USER (20 Reviews)
September 9th, 2006 | 158 replies

Release Date: 1996 | Tracklist

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.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds get cool points for talking about dead bodies and psychos...

Comments:Add a Comment 
September 9th 2006


You did a good job telling us about the lyrics and concept of the album but didn't focus to much on the instrumentation. This was a well written review yet I think you should go back and put in some info about the instrumentation and sound.

The Jungler
September 9th 2006


Great, another seemingly cool singer/songwriter that I know absolutley nothing about. Thanks sepstrup.
But seriously, you should listen to Zebra, the review was good but it could use more description of the the actual music.
That PJ Harvey track sounds excellent.

September 9th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

I guess you're right. I'll edit it tomorrow probably.

September 10th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

I added a little more description of the music and changed a few other things.

September 10th 2006


Album Rating: 4.0

Good review dude. I love this album. "Stagger Lee" is probably the most disturbing song I know of and "Henry Lee" is just one of my favourite songs period.

September 11th 2006


Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Darn...I was checkin this album because I wanted to write my second review on it. This is a good review and anything I write atm would be inferior to this review anyways. This album is pure brilliance and Stagger Lee pwns all! I honestly do think it deserves a 5 btw...some may not think anything Nick Caves writes is a classic but I believe this album will stand the test of timeThis Message Edited On 09.11.06

September 12th 2006


Album Rating: 3.5

You could definitely argue for a higher rating, but I don't think it's a 5. It's definitely a fantastic album, and I really enjoy it.

You should definitely review it, though. It's good to have different opinions on an album.

February 17th 2007


Album Rating: 5.0

this and Let Love In are my favorite albums of his. check out sikTH's cover of "Tupelo" which is a nick cave song from one of his earlier albums

November 9th 2007


Album Rating: 5.0

i cant believe this album has such a low rating on this site

August 23rd 2008


The rendition of Stagger Lee here is one of the greatest things i've ever heard along with Where the Wild Roses Grow. Song of Joy & Henry Lee my two other favourite tracks off the album.

I haven't warmed up completely to the rest of it, unfortunately. I'm hoping over time it'll come together for me because the rest of it is so damn good.

October 22nd 2008


listening to this again now and i think it gets really undersold around here (or at least, now i do).This Message Edited On 10.22.08

September 7th 2010


Album Rating: 5.0

Good review, Amazing song writting

November 29th 2011


"Joy had been bound with electrical tape, in her mouth a gag.. she'd been stabbed repeatedly and stuffed into a sleeping bag"

Nick can make death metal bands shiver with terror. Not to mention the man's been putting out quality music for 25 plus years.

April 21st 2012


bumpin hard..

and im jamin the Murder Ballads hard. more people need to get on this.

April 21st 2012


because death metal bands only ever sing about murder amirite?

April 21st 2012


katatonia made sure of that

December 8th 2012


Album Rating: 3.5

So many people die in 'O'Malley's Bar' haha

I must say though, after the violence and carnage that ensues in that track, the Bob Dylan cover to close is a perfect balance..great album, Nick Cave really does just about no wrong

January 9th 2013


Album Rating: 2.5

Not to be a snob, but I think this is by far the worst Bad Seeds album. I love the duets, Lovely Creature and Death Is Not The End... the rest is just sooo cheesy in a bad way. And after as perfect an album as Let Love In. I actually feel embarrassed for it. Sooo bad sooo retarded and corny, you'd have to be a 12 year old boy or god forbid a metalhead for this garbage to appeal to you. If it wasn't for Lovely Creature and Death, I'd rate this a zero.

February 4th 2013


Yeah because repulsing an album due to a deliberal comedic horror theme and using ad hominem (the metalhead comment is laughable) to say that people digging this are oaths doesn't make you a snob. anyhow this happens to be one of my favourite seeds album.

June 7th 2013


Album Rating: 4.5

I've been enjoying this one quite a bit the last few weeks along with Old Blind Dogs Tall Tails (shares some similar elements lyrically). Over the top, yes... Repulsive at times...yes.

Awesome bit of listening...Hell yes.

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