Though paeans to violent death have periodically infiltrated the pop mainstream (top 10 standards ”Ode to Billie Joe” and ”The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” spring to mind), there’s no precedent for the homicidal scope found on the dazzling, disturbing new album by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Cave, long known for mordant, noirish musical vignettes, has taken his muse to its ultimate conclusion on Murder Ballads, which boasts a single, ”Where the Wild Roses Grow,” that has been a hit in Europe and his native Australia since October. This week, the diabolical disc heads for a Kmart near you.
Crimes of passion, serial killings, and summary executions — viewed variously from the eyes of the perpetrator, onlooker, victim’s loved one, even the corpse — all get their due. While Ballads’ subject matter and amoral execution seems just the thing to give the C. DeLores Tuckers and William Bennetts of this world fits, Cave balks at the suggestion that the album, which has brought him to a new level of notoriety, is a calculated attempt to ride the violence-glamorizing coattails of pop-culture sensations like Pulp Fiction and gangsta rap. ”I object to that. I’ve been writing narrative songs about murder for 20 years…I love to write about violence. The kinds of words you can use are very exciting. They turn me on. What can I say?”
Genrewise, says Cave, Murder Ballads spans ”all sorts of stuff, from very tender traditional folk to something that sounds like a polka to heavy, funky gangsta rap — just about everything except reggae.” Imagine a musical amalgam of Edgar Allan Poe, Tom Waits, and Raymond Chandler.
Thus far, the album’s most talked-about tracks are its duets: the lullaby ”Where the Wild Roses Grow,” an improbable collaboration featuring Aussie pop goddess Kylie Minogue; and Cave’s take on the traditional ode ”Henry Lee,” for which he recruited kindred spirit and old friend PJ Harvey. Perhaps the most jarring cut is Cave’s icy update of ”Stagger Lee,” which morphs the mythic figure into a sadistic sexual predator by way of profane lyrics drawn from verse by legendary ghetto beat poet Iceberg Slim. Theorizes Cave: ”Stagger Lee has become synonymous with pure evil. It’s about a man who kills another man senselessly. He is, in a way, a metaphor for the world and the direction it’s going in, a barometer for social decline.”
As for Ballads’ reception on these shores, Cave shrugs. ”I have no idea what interests the American market, so I leave it up to them to work it out,” he says, adding wistfully, ”I know the next record we make, it will all calm down and we’ll settle back into semiobscurity, and everybody will be happy.”