Essential Records: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads

Posted by Amoebite, July 9, 2015 12:55pm | Post a Comment

Essential Records Nick Cave Murder Ballads

Mute Records just wrapped their recent run of Nick Cave reissues, including the first-ever North American release of eleven classic albums on 180 gram heavyweight vinyl, dating back to 1984’s From Her To Eternity. Remastered by founding member of the Bad Seeds Mick Harvey, the rereleases started coming in December 2014 and continued on into spring 2015.

Nick Cave Vinyl Reissues

When you’ve spent years working in record stores, it’s almost impossible to answer the perennial question, “So, what’s your favorite band?” For a while I had about five bands I would answer this question with, then slowly (probably after finally realizing most people asking this had no idea who I was talking about) I refined my answer to, “I guess Nick Cave.” I “guess” this is because his songwriting is literate, dark, sometimes slyly humorous, and always fiery and unabashed. I “guess” it’s because his aesthetic concerns include haunted Southern Gothic imagery and brutal Revisionist Western stories—basically it’s like someone started writing music, films and books tailored entirely towards my interests. (According to the internet, he also shares my less intense beliefs in the importance of cat art and telling people to “just Google it.”) So in the mid ‘90s when the song “Red Right Hand” gradually lurked its way into my teenage consciousness through repeated exposure via The X-Files movie soundtrack and the approximately two dozen crappy teen horror flicks it was used in (ok, a quick internet search reveals that it was pretty much only Scream), my curiosity was piqued.

Nick Cave Let Love In

At that point in my life I’d only vaguely heard of William Faulkner, had no idea who Cormac McCarthy or Robert Altman were, and didn’t really know anything about punk or post-punk except that I got really excited whenever The Cure or New Order came on the adult contemporary station my parents turned on for background music in the car. I had attended parochial school up until high school and I remember huddling next to my CD player, listening to Cave’s ominous, epic lyrics about the figure with the red right hand that you’ll see in your nightmares, that you’ll see in your dreams, and thinking “I think this song is bad…[long, long pause] but I like it.” Then I hit the back button and listened to it again. And again. I bought Let Love In, with its raging, bleak view of love, passion, and their inversions, and although I didn’t really comprehend from an emotional standpoint what Cave was talking about, I could see it. Like, “yeah, it seems conceivable that this is the scary thing creeping beneath romantic love”—not that I had much to base it on at the time. And thus was born a weird, sometimes cynical suburban punk kid who didn’t yet know anything about NYC or London 1977, but who recognized that this mordant, rakish figure had a different way of looking at things and that I wasn’t the only one with a deep-rooted dissatisfaction always biting at my heels.

Nick Cave PJ Harvey Henry Lee

I bought Murder Ballads a short time after. This is what I had been searching for in all the books I checked out from the library, all the songs I taped off the local college radio station’s crackly AM airwaves. “Stagger Lee” was violent and unapologetic, introducing me to the sheer pleasure of yelling along to Cave’s long string of curse words, and turning me on both to the Southern murder ballad tradition and to the idea that there was history in this country that was not discussed and oftentimes was intended to be forgotten. “Henry Lee” was another score in my book for PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? had opened up a weirder world of rock to me, with its sparse, proud yet desperate narratives. “Where the Wild Roses” grow introduced me to Kylie Minogue, who I knew as the Ophelia-like figure in the music video before I knew her as pop figure to rival Madonna in the rest of the world. Wild figures on the fringes of society and sanity populated the album, victims to their own gnawing passions, lusts, and hatreds, finally in turn exploding into their new identity as victimizers. There was a strange, secret otherworld beneath the known world, one that wasn’t exactly inviting or enticing, but which, as I got older, it became increasingly clear that one could find herself on the verge of slipping into on those slightly sinister humid summer nights when the air conditioner is broken and the sound of squad cars tearing down a city block lingers in the air. That’s what the existence of Murder Ballads told me.

A murder ballad is in essence, a fable on steroids—or more accurately, perhaps, a fable on half a bottle of whiskey and that weird Russian drug Krokodil from the late ‘00s that was making people’s flesh rot and strangle goats or whatever. Some of the songs on the album Murder Ballads are based on traditional British folk songs that put in their hard time in the poverty and beauty of Appalachia, others are based on true incidents, and others Cave just made up. They’re bigger, bolder, and badder than real life (even when they’re based on real life), yet they hold up a mirror in which one is forced to ask oneself how far he or she would sink in the face of humiliation, despair and desire. This is what Nick Cave does best: digs into those dark corners of the soul where most people fear to look and presents the coddled concept of romantic love back to us in all its great horror and beauty.

--Alison Stolpa


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Essential Records (35), Nick Cave (29), Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds (4), Murder Ballads (4), Pj Harvey (17), Kylie Minogue (10), Mute Records (4), Vinyl (200), Vinyl Reissues (16)