”When you’re sad and when you’re lonely / and you haven’t got a friend / Just remember, death is not the end’
I will nail my colours to the mast here, I love Murder Ballads by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. What’s not to like? a beautifully realised, beautifully played LP with a body count approaching 65 (including a terrier), glamorous guest stars and like most of my fave LPs its funny as hell. Well, I find it funny as hell, although obviously not the killingy bits and all the graphic murders and stuff*.
This is a recent purchase (on blue vinyl fellow train spotters) but I have owned nearly all of it on, well, you know, the other format. Record companies used to send me singles to review and so I had ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ and ‘Henry Lee’ and an album sampler for years. Again, I just never quite got around to buying it. I had already found Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds through Henry’s Dream and this just sent me into full blown bromance mode. What a man ! He gets to lead the coolest looking band in the world, he gets to cuddle PJ Harvey, he writes cool novels, swears and kills Kylie with a rock!
‘When all that you hold sacred / Falls down and will not mend / Just remember, death is not the end’
I have always found it difficult to write about the Bad Seeds’ music, proper journalists who do this sort of thing (better, for a living) fall back on phrases like cocktail-tinged Americana, which do a job but don’t really get to it and now, writing this, I can see why. When I first used to read about Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds I imagined some wild, strange experimental cacophony and when I finally got to hear him I remember thinking ‘Oh, its proper music’, meaning it was (mostly) melodic and recognizably musicky. But on Murder Ballads they not only mine country and folk music for their melody and instrumentation but also all their mawkish and macabre fatalities, so if this is cocktail-folk-Americana then so be it, or just ‘Proper music’, then bring it on.
The playing, like all Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds LPs is staggeringly good. I confess, musically ignorant as I am, to rarely noticing drummers and percussion but I can always spot Thomas Wydler and Jim Sclavunos. I worship at the altar of Mick Harvey though, I really do not know why he is not more feted then he is. His arranging, his guitar playing, his ear for melody is incredible. Not that I go in for such things at all but he’d be in my Top 3 guitarists ever.** When I eventually saw them I thought they looked like an incredibly dissolute Irish show band and I have always been a sucker for bands that look like they could fight if it all kicked off; I have no doubt whatsoever the Bad Seeds could. Incidentally, their gigs were always the best.
‘When cities are on fire / With the burning flesh of men / Just remember, death is not the end’
The songs? a mixed bunch of radically reworked trad songs and based-on-trad songs and Don’t-give-a-flying-one-about-trad songs. ‘Stagger Lee’ is a fabulously foul-mouthed take on the old belter and I’ve seen it used as the centre-piece on some of his gigs (I still think Lloyd Price’s is my favourite version though). ‘Henry Lee’ is so smooth that you’d miss the subject matter if it wasn’t for the LP title and I love ‘The Curse of Millhaven’, Cave’s most deranged vocal on this LP (‘Fuck it, I’m a monster, I admit it!’). Again though, I find it really funny (if you are reading this after my arrest and looking for evidence of previous homicidal tendencies, I would refer you to my earlier comments on laughter here). There are a couple of tracks that don’t hit the heights, but are still good (‘Crow Jane’ and ‘Lovely Creature’) but ‘O’Malley’s bar’ bores me after a while and really doesn’t justify more than 3 minutes of its 14.
‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is just a little masterpiece, a perfectly formed murder ballad, told from both sides of the story and so good that it transcended the very fact that it was Kylie – I know several people who got very excited at the fact that they could now ‘legitimately’ own a track with Kylie on it. My favourite bit is where she misses his justification for the killing, that ‘all beauty must die’, just hearing a ‘muttered word’ instead. Stately, clever, a bit sick, perfect stuff; Kylie can sing too you know.
‘And there’s no-one there to comfort you / With a helping hand to lend / Just remember, Death is not the end’
For my money the best track here is the cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Death is not the End’, not a song I know at all in its original form but here it is served up and given the full Band-aid treatment, as an assortment of reprobates take it in turns to trade lines, Kylie, Shane McGowan, PJ Harvey and assorted band members – my favourite being Blixa Bargeld. I can picture the cheery studio video charity songs always have, featuring Shane and Kylie arms around each other singing into the mic, various Bad Seeds glowering in the background. But my favourite bit about this whole song is the fact that whilst Dylan sang of redemption and comfort, knowing that there was a better hereafter I get the sense that here we are revelling in the fact that whatever torments, unpleasantness and troubles we have here, it just doesn’t end when we die. It’s all just one sad, sick eternal joke. I love that.
You know what? Excellent though Murder Ballads is, its only about my 5th favourite Nick cave & the Bad seeds LP too.
* I threw this bit in to put the authorities off my scent.
** This is, of course, a lie – I’m a compulsive ranker …