52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations) Chapter 8: Murder Ballads

The interesting thing about music nerds is that we seem to find one another. I don’t know if it’s more the nerdy part, gathering for shelter and defense purposes against the outside world, or the love of music part that draws you together. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

What I can say is that a large chunk of my friend in high school were music nerds but we were all a littler different in our tastes. When I first met Dan, for instance, he was more of a metal guy but had tastes that ran all over the place. He would later morph into mainly a punker but never lost his love of Metallica. Jeremy and Aaron were more open to the more artsy stuff. They were the first among us to discover bands like The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth or that weird single of William Burroughs with Kurt Cobain doing guitar screeches in the background. Dave was a bit of everything but had an older sister who was definitely into alternative and indie stuff that he would bring back to the rest of us. The great thing about set ups like this is while everyone has similar tastes, it meant that we bought different albums. When you’re a cash-strapped high school kid who loves music, this is very important to expanding your tastes.

What would tend to happen is one person would by the CD, tell everyone else how awesome it was and then someone would borrow it and dub it to tape. Sometimes the tapes would be traded off to others as well. Sometimes, an album would make its way around a whole group.

And that is how Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds came to our consciousness.

I’m pretty sure I was the first of us to come across them. It was a special on MuchMusic about Lollapalooza featuring live clips from the concerts. This piece comes on with this tall and lanky guy dressed like a lounge singer. The band backing him up were just wailing away. I had no idea what I was seeing but I knew it was awesome, whatever it was. I would later report back to my friends about what I had seen, just to make sure I hadn’t made it up. Jeremy confirmed he had heard of them before. We agreed that we didn’t know what to make of it other than it was pretty damn cool.

Aaron was the first one to actually buy an album and as it so happened this was around the time that Murder Ballads came out. I’m not sure why Aaron chose that particular album, probably because it was the newest and Aaron had become a big fan of The Pogues (Pogues singer Shane McGowan was featured on Murder Ballads). The CD soon started making the rounds.

It’s really hard to describe Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. In my teen years I usually told people that it was they sounded like lounge music from Hell but I think that may have had more to do with the band’s set up and look as opposed to music. Musically, there is nothing quite like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. You may hear elements from time to time in different bands but it’s very rare to say “They remind me of The Bad Seeds.” Lyrically, there are few modern songwriters that stack up to Nick Cave, he is a songwriter and a storyteller that draws from everywhere. You can hear the influence of American blues in his lyrics but also the influence of the dark side of Dylan and The Beat Generation poets. But even with those influences, nothing is quite like Nick Cave, neither in lyrics or in voice.

Murder Ballads is an album that is themed around death and murder. Not exactly new thematic material for rock by any stretch but it was the material that was put on this record that makes it special. Most of the tracks are written by Cave and they are spectacular but what really helps this album is the track listing. Every song seems perfectly placed. “Song of Joy” for instance, opens the album but it really feels like the opening number to some weird anthology play that features ten scenes of death and destruction. It’s followed by a killer rendition of the American folk song “Stagger Lee” where you can just hear the seething violence and anger just being barely chained back in Cave’s vocals.

Of course, the stand out track at the time was “Where The Wild Rose Grows” featuring guest vocals by Kylie Minogue. No matter what time period you think about the combination of The Bad Seeds and Kylie. At that time, Kylie was in the process of trying to re-invent herself after a string of pop hits including a cover of the “Locomotion”. If this duet happened now, it would seem equally absurd.

But it works!

There’s a tenderness to the song that you can just feel through the speakers. Even when the protagonist is talking about crushing the poor girl’s skull with a rock, you know he’s doing it out of some very messed up form of love.

Kylie isn’t the only guest vocalist, there’s also PJ Harvey that contributes her lovely set of pipes Henry Lee.

Which brings us to the final tune, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death is Not the End”, which looking back, fits the album amazingly well, especially as the album closer but seems like an odd choice. It wasn’t off a particularly well-remembered album (1988’s Down in the Groove) and I may get hate mail for this but Dylan’s version feels kind of… well… dead. There’s no life or energy in his version.

The Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds version, however, feels like a church hymn. Both Kylie and PJ Harvey are brought back for added vocals and bring along Shane MacGowan, who’s drunken warble seems incredibly fitting.They are all joined on vocals by a number of members of The Bad Seeds themselves. Much like “Song of Joy” seemed like the first act in some weird play, “Death is Not the End” really feels like the final curtain call where all the characters come out for one final song and a bow.

This album still holds up incredibly well. The brilliant thing about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is because they don’t sound like anyone else, their music never really becomes dated. Murder Ballads was released in 1996 but could easily be released yesterday and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

On a side note, I’ve seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds live, and even though they are older, they can still rip through a killer version of “Stagger Lee” that many younger bands could learn from.

Next week, we go in a completely different direction where I talk about an album that was my first lesson that a band might not be all that appears.

Brent Chittenden

Brent Chittenden is a freelance writer with a gift for the geek. Currently a writer with A Journal Of Musical Things and a podcaster with True North Nerds, he's also written for Comic Book Daily, Explore Music and a dozen other places. Currently, he is the co-host of the True North Nerds podcast. You can find out more at www.facebook.com/bcchittenden