I recently went to the cinema for the first time in seven years. My last time was at one of the premieres of Control during the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, an occasion when I was uncontrollably (pun intended) sobbing at the end.

This time it was to venture out to see 20,000 Days on Earth, a mix of drama and documentary portraying a fictionalised 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave. It proved to be quite enjoyable, heightened by some wonderful live performances of a number of songs from the 2013 LP Push The Sky Away. The film has a number of funny self-deprecating moments including when Nick talks about his brief brush with fame thanks to the duet with Kylie Minogue which took him onto Top of The Pops and into the living rooms of millions of people, many of whom bought their first ever Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album only to go off the band immediately.

That album was Murder Ballads and I make no apologies for digging a piece out of the archives of the old place from back in January 2007 and adapting it slightly.

Murder Ballads was released in 1996. It came at a time when Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds were growing in reputation and the main man’s profile was expanding into the pages of all of the mainstream broadsheet papers in the UK. When he announced that he was recording an album of death songs, everyone braced themselves for unbridled doom and gloom.

The fact that the taster for the album was a single recorded with Kylie Minogue stunned everyone. The fact that the single got into the charts and led to Nick making a couple of appearances on Top Of The Pops stunned everyone and Nick.

Personally, I loved the single. I had been a fan of Kylie for years (Jacques The Kipper will testify to that having once got a specially made t-shirt for me as a birthday present). It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but Kylie in the mid 90s was not the global phenomenon she is today…and I do firmly believe that while they both gained from recording with each other in terms of public recognition (Nick) and critical acclaim (Kylie), it was the pop princess who benefited most.

I imagine a few of Kylie’s mainstream fans would have bought this album and been appalled by it. Equally, I hope that a lot of listeners would have gone in with an open-mind and come out impressed. But it was a record which sold more than most of the other Bad Cave recordings (and which subsequently is very easy to find very cheap in charity stores as casual fans having not listened to it in almost 20 years clear some space in their homes!!).

The opening track, Song Of Joy, must be the most misleading song title ever. A funereally paced number about a man coming home and discovering his wife and three daughters had been mutilated by a serial killer. It’s an astonishingly bleak song, but a very brave one to include at the start of the album. If the casual listener was stunned by that, they had no idea what came next…

There’s loads of blood, gore, mindless violence, sex and bad language in track two. It’s like a mini-Tarantino movie in 5 minutes. Stagger Lee is a fantastic record – and is even more astonishing live. There’s loads of versions out there on the likes of you tube for your enjoyment including a personal favourite from Channel 4’s The White Room back in the mid 90s. But while it is an astonishingly good version, it doesn’t come close to catching how intense this song is when you’re in the audience at a gig.

There’s another extreme u-turn from Stagger Lee with tracks 3, 4, and 5, (Henry Lee, Lovely Creature and Where The Wild Roses Grow) all of which are ballads. And while there are deaths and murders in each of them, they could easily pass for love songs on any other record.

Track 6 is one of Mrs Villains’s all-time favourite songs and one that she was overjoyed to hear played live at Glasgow Barrowlands back in 2001.

I read someone else describe The Curse of Millhaven as polka-metal. And it’s true!! It’s an immense tale of a serial killer committing all sorts of atrocities in a small rural town. It’s just about the most catchy sing-a-long song that Nick has ever written, but it’s the frantic playing of the Bad Seeds that make this so special. Violence and gore never sounded so much fun.

A pause for breath with The Kindness of Strangers and Crow Jane at Tracks 7 & 8 before the tune that I think most divides fans of Nick Cave.

O’Malley’s Bar is either a fantastic opus or the most over-indulgent piece of crap ever recorded.

A man walks into a bar buys and drink. He then shoots the bar owner and everyone else unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. He does it cos he gets a sexual kick out of it. He doesn’t have a grudge against any of his victims. Many of the deaths are described in gruesome graphic detail. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many bodies there are at the end. But they’re piled up all around the bar. And then the cops come…..but I’m not spoiling the ending. Go and listen to all 14 mins and 28 seconds yourself. Oh and in the accompanying lyric booklet, I counted 158 lines for this song alone. With no chorus. As for the music….well there’s not much of real tune, it’s like an extended jamming session. But it’s incredibly effective.

The LP closes with a strange one. Death Is Not The End is a cover of an obscure Bob Dylan record, and lead vocals are taken by 7 different singers. It’s also the only song on the album that doesn’t have an actual death in it…..

Almost 20 years after its release, and I’m still not tired of Murder Ballads. I’m not saying its a perfect album. But it’s far better than many might have you believe. It’s an astonishing piece of work in terms of the breadth of music on offer. And it’s the music that matters most.

And so here’s Mrs Villain’s favourite:-

mp3: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Curse of Millhaven



5 thoughts on “MURDER BALLADS

  1. I want to feature a Cave album in my ’20 albums to take to my grave’ series, but really struggling which one to include. Murder Ballads is definitely in the shortlist of 5 along with Henry’s Dream, Let Love In, Abattoir Blues and Push The Sky Away. Oh, and maybe Dig Lazarus Dig. Bugger, that’s six now… don’t expect a decision anytime soon…

  2. CC….if you head down to Missing in Argyle Street (not a charity shop I admit but very much a 2nd hand emporium) then you can usually find a copy readily enough

  3. Missing has had a fair bit of my cash over the years JC both under the bridge, round the corner and at Waterloo Street I will have alook next time I’m in. Cheers

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