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ALBUM REVIEW: Murder Ballads [1996] by Johnny Walker Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Murder Ballads? Well, it had to happen. Nick Cave has always been on intimate terms with Mr. Death, kind of like the Knight in Bergman's classic movie The Seventh Seal, involved with the Grim Reaper in a chess match which he must ultimately lose. From cheerful ditties like his former band The Birthday Party's "Dead Joe" and "A Dead Song," through to knee-slappers like his cover of Tim Rose's "Long Time Man" (remorseful convict tells tale of spousal murder) and his own "The Mercy Seat" (confessions of a killer about to get the electric chair) with his backing superband The Bad Seeds, Cave has found death to be the last great mystery in our jaded Western culture, an event beyond the reach of the Tin God Technology in which bourgeois society misguidedly places its hopes for immortality. Then again, a man whose drug overdoses count in double figures would perhaps be expected to have more insight into the matter at hand than your garden-variety yuppie toiling away for Bill Gates.

That being said, this isn't just another Nick Cave album, except in its continuation of the high quality art we've come to expect from him. In a strange kind of way, Murder Ballads can be viewed as the counterpart to Cave's idol Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man, the album where the singer-songwriter previously perceived as "depressing" or "morbid" overtly embraces the black humour which has always been implicit in his work. It might sound as if, by describing a song like the 14 minute lounge-jazz epic "O'Malley's Bar," a blood-soaked tale wherein the totality of said bar's proprietors and patrons get blown away, as "funny," this critic has cracked. But just listen and try to stifle at least a giggle.

In "O'Malley's Bar," murder takes its place in the absurdity of human existence as just one more--admittedly extreme--facet of a life which nobody even remotely understands. The protagonist is an ineffectual small town resident who has decided to give meaning to his nowheresville existence through murder: as he starts on his spree, he "feels his dick grow long and hard," his impotent former self becoming transmuted into a winged raven of death. Cave's vocal delivery, which might best be described as "controlled hysteria," the off-the-wall, detailed descriptions by the narrator of his various murderous actions, and the incongruity of the backing music, here take us into the OTT realm of mordant humour. Still, as with Cohen at his best, Cave doesn't lose sight of serious moral and ethical questions, as smack in the midst of his carnage, the narrator debates the question of freewill: "I have no freewill I cried . . . If I have no freewill, how can I be morally culpable?" The conclusion, where the killer is shown to be something far less than a (anti)hero of any sort, is again both intensely funny and thought-provoking.

Rivaling "O'Malley's Bar" in the gallows humour sweepstakes is "The Curse of Millhaven," where Cave, notoriously antipathetic to the psychobabble of North American therapy culture, unleashes a murderous narrator--a woman this time, tellingly--who is unequivocally an unrepentantly evil, mocking the efforts of the social engineers who believe she might be "cured" of her bloodlust. As all people, young, old and in-between, have to die eventually anyway, why not help them along?, she reasons, admitting in aside that she's a natural "monster" who's beyond all attempts at rehabilitation. In fact, such efforts merely provide great amusement for our Lottie, whose only real regret is that she didn't have time to inflict still more carnage before she was caught: "It's Rorschach and Prozac and everything is groovy!" sings an gleefully unhinged-sounding Cave, effortlessly taking on a persona of the opposite gender. Again, along with the laughs, Cave manages to take on some serious issues here which strike at the heart of contemporary Western culture: not only nature vs. nurture, but also the notion--promulgated by many recent PC theorists--which posit the stereotypes of the male as rapacious murderer and the female as pure and innocent victim. For Cave, the darkness which leads to murder is a darkness which lies within us all, regardless of gender.

Murder Ballads, however, doesn't always tread the line between sardonic and serious, the album's opener, "Song of Joy," being a case in point. This one ranks up there with "The Mercy Seat" as one of Cave's most chilling excursions into the ethical void of a killer's mind, as a man, formerly a doctor but now a vagabond, relates the tale of his wife and daughters' murders, gradually revealing the very probable truth about himself in the process. This is followed up by a return to black humour with the ace retelling of the "Stagger Lee" myth, the Bad Seeds--in typically sympathetic, versatile form thoroughout--providing a loping, but razor-sharp r&b riff over which Cave relates an X-rated tale of murderous machismo not likely to be receiving heavy airplay anytime soon. Completing a triple-play is the high melodrama of "Henry Lee," a duet with Cave's female doppleganger PJ Harvey ( a match made in . . . well, not heaven, surely) in which the traditional ballad receives an arrangement owing much to Cohen's "Joan of Arc." PJ's protagonist repeatedly sticks recalcitrant love-object Henry Lee with a pen-knife and deposits him at the bottom of a deep well to rot.

"Henry Lee" and the album's other boy-girl duet, "Where The Wild Roses Grow" (with fellow Aussie Kylie Minogue taking a surprisingly haunting vocal turn) also pay homage to another of Cave's most treasured influences: Sinatra. No, not Frank so much as Nancy, specifically her supercool team-ups with singer-songwriter extraordinare Lee Hazlewood from the 1960s ("Some Velvet Morning," ""Sand," "Summer Wine," etc.), their sunny eroticism taken for a walk on the wild side when filtered through Cave's own Gothic sensibilities. A kitsch element exists here, surely, but one which on repeatedly listening tends to recede, as you remember what it was like when people dared to write songs that dealt with life's stark realities without resorting to the cutesy postmodern irony in which all must be made to seem a joke so that nothing will ever hurt. Cave dares the listener to get beyond the superficialities of the time and really feel, and to this end the duets here succeed marvelously.

A couple of weaker moments, however, do mar the album slightly: "The Kindness of Strangers," a countrified lament, drowns in its own lugubriousness (the Bob Ezrinish, "weeping" sound-effects here were a big mistake), and "Crow Jane" is an OK but unnecessary ditty eclipsed by the superior "Millhaven." But the grand finale, "Death Is Not The End," a cover of an obscure 80s Bob Dylan number (and featuring turns from the album's female guest stars as well as ex-Pogue and Cave pal Shane MacGowan and other band members), strikes the perfect closing tone. A Johnny Cash and the Carter Family sing-a-long feel pervades the track: you can almost picture the singers waving goodbye as the song fades out and the curtains are drawn. "See you next week, next year, or in the next life." In Cave's hands, this superficially comforting and placid song takes on discomfiting overtones: if death is not the end, does that mean we'll be facing more of the degradation, despair and death we've just been treated to in the next life? And the next? Murder Ballads, Nick Cave's loosest, most multi-dimensional solo album, thus ends on this extremely ambivalent note, and we can picture its creator sitting back with a wicked grin, realizing that the last laugh is perhaps not the last, but is most surely on us all.


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