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ALBUM REVIEW: Murder Ballads [1996] New Internationalist Print E-mail
Sunday, 13 August 2006

That Nick Cave has themed his latest - and tenth - solo album around murder should surprise no-one. The Australian songwriter has long spoken of his fascination for what he calls the 'language of violence'. Earlier songs like The Mercy Seat, an account of a condemned killer's last moments before execution or John Finn's Wife, a humid story of lust and death, were both musically and dramatically tours de forces. Cave's epic approach to songs marks him out as a fine storyteller with an astute talent for broad, vivid lines. His own language is unique in current rock music: peppered with Biblical imagery mixed with that of American folk song: his facility for words is matched only by older peers, Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen.

There are some truly chilling songs, like Song of Joy which appropriates some of Satan's best lines from Paradise Lost in a way that consciously blurs the identity of the killer. There are some hilarious songs: the Curse of Millhaven, a romping inventory of the exploits of a teenage psycho named Laureate, is straight out of Tom Lehrer.

Murder Ballads arrives at a moment when rock music is being scrutinized by censors in the grip of a moral panic. Recent furore surrounding rap albums from black American artists has suggested a casual link: that singing about violence is tantamount to inciting it. This is, in my opinion, a spurious logic which conceals a more generalized fear about violence itself. Cave's enduring power is to confront the passion and its capacity to be simultaneously destructive and creative. Singing about death is another way of approaching life. And the fact that Cave is, at heart, an old-fashioned moralist is often ignored.

There are many reasons why Murder Ballads is a superlative album. Cave's voice is a constantly maturing vehicle, the deep tones startling and moving. Guitarists Blixa Bargeld and Mick Haney produce a multi-textured roughness while percussionist Jim Sclavunus and pianist Conway Savage provide the sparse, rhythmical undertow characteristic of Cave's music. There is nothing superfluous, nothing redundant. Cave may take his cues from raw blues and preacher songs but he does so in a way that enlarges the format. And in his unflinching recognition of the very ordinariness of violence there is nothing gratuitous. A rare, superb treat.


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