by Kyle Olson
In an effort to fulfill some bizarre
need in my life, I purchase a lot of CDs, both old and new. They
are obsessively cataloged and organized and poured over track by
track (Seriously, it's obsessive. It involves post-it notes and
code and excel spreadsheets). It is truly a labor of love (and
an unhealthy psychological imperative). But, since I am consuming
so much music, I thought I could use this constant influx for the
powers of good. Should I come across anything worth sharing (either
a new release or an old favorite), I will share them with you.
So you'll love me.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Murder Ballads (Mute)
Some history: Back before daytime television and 24 hour news networks, the only way the uneducated populace could get their dose of sordid intrigue was through the murder ballad, a sub-genre of music that offered up tale after tragic tale of lives cut short and the folks who did the cutting. The style died away, no pun intended, after the depression era as radio became more prevalent. Thankfully, ever with an eye for sordid intrigue, Nick Cave recorded an album of homage to the style, updating some traditional classics and penning a fresh new batch of mortal melodies. Though, since people are less easily shocked nowadays, Mr. Cave had to up the theatrics, and Murder Ballads comes out the speakers with the fire of a revival preacher and the body count of a 1970s slasher flick.
Starting the album, the ironically titled "Song of Joy" oozes from the speaker somewhere between "cautionary tale" and "threat." Grimly intoning over dark, bar-room piano, Cave tells the tale of a family, bound and murdered, "Paradise Lost" quotes written in blood on the walls. True to the genre, narrative and melodrama fuse to create a piece that is moving and atmospheric, and, at its heart, entertaining. The narrative unfolds, grizzly murders portrayed in a mildly anachronistic language that permeates the album, imbuing the whole bloody mess with the charm of a bleak folklore and urban legend retold to the listener by an old and not-entirely-trusted relative.
Thankfully, master showman Nick Cave knows better than to hammer his audience over the head with repetitive tales of terror. Like a blood-soaked version of the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs," Cave knows to vary his tone and delivery. After a couple darker selections, Murder Ballads features a couple mid-album tunes showcasing the vocal talents of Ms. PJ Harvey and fellow Australian Ms. Kylie Minogue, who makes a wild departure from the club party cuts many know her from. Both women lend their voices to beautifully eulogistic and sorrowful tales of young life and love cut short, offering a wonderful counterpoint to Cave's commanding baritone. Minogue's turn on "Where the Wild Roses Grow" is emotionally stirring and gorgeous, a brief respite from the carnage that surrounds it, offering some evidence that murder isn't all fun and games.
But as quick as the wild moodswings of the criminally unhinged, Cave is back in wild-eyed carnival barker mode, telling the tale of "The Curse of Milhaven" and it's shocking rash of fatalities. With a drumbeat like an unmanned freight train, Cave helms what sounds like an asylum choir, "la-la-la-la"-ing their way through portraits of death after death, painted in the garish greens and greys of retro horror comics. Standing out as an album highlight, "Milhaven" is as shocking and fun as classic horror films. Despite the death, it's tongue-in-cheek enough to hook anyone with a macabre sense of humor, with the narrator informing listeners that "all God's children, they all gotta die," a statement that hangs beautifully ambiguously between "world-weary acknowledgment of mortality" and "criminally insane mission statement."
After a few more changes of tone, Murder Ballads comes to its centerpiece, "O'Malley's Bar." Over nearly fifteen minutes, both the narrator and the tune stalk menacingly around the listener, recounting a fateful night at a local drinking hole where no one, save the killer, got out alive. Death after death is coolly and poetically recounted, without remorse, but thankfully with the flair for musical storytelling that makes Murder Ballads such an engaging album.
And as the cherry on the sundae (bloody sundae), the album closes with a pub singalong cover of Dylan's "Death Is Not the End," assuring the listener that despite the harrowing, murderous, threatening, and sorrowful events that occurred over the last hour, everything's going to be OK (albeit delivered with a bit of a wink). Fans of narrative songwriting and quality lyrics will happily tread through the pools of gore to get to this LP and its myriad rewards. Nick Cave is one of the most gifted lyricists working today, and Murder Ballads stands as a triumph of tone and songcraft, all wrapped in an expert sense of theatricality that draws the listener into the world of the song. Word choice, wit, catchy melodies, and a strong vein of emotion of all stripes infuses this entertaining and bloody mess. And like any cherished story, either book or film, listeners will return time and time again to be rewarded with its sordid shocks that feel more akin to a dog-eared pulp paperback or the grainy celluloid of a midnight movie than a hunk of shiny plastic.
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