When I wrote about You Am I’s Hourly Daily, I mentioned the complete dismissal I had for the band at that time. But while I gave You Am I my indifference at worst, I have long and actively campaigned against Nick Cave, his Bad Seeds and everything I see them to represent. I’ve never been able to look past what I’ve seen as indulgence and pretension. The layers and layers of instrumentation, the over earnestness of Cave’s voice and delivery. As a punk rock fan, they’re two sure fire ways to make me not want to listen to a band.
But I also realise my reaction is based on only the most superficial of assumptions and uninformed opinions. What can I say, the idea of Nick Cave has just always rubbed me the wrong way. But I can’t deny he’s one of the most important and influential Australian musicians of the last couple of decades. That, combined with his work as a screenwriter and in Bad Seeds side project Grinderman has made me more and more feel like I need to give him a chance. So here I am, having recently listened to a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album that I have heard about many times over the years, Murder Ballads.
First of all, a concept album built on a thematically linked set of stories is already going against a lot of what I look for in music. I personally find lyrics to be the least important aspect of any song. A catchy melody can save even the worst lyrics. Amazing lyrics do nothing to hide a dodgy melody. So when Murder Ballads opens with the musically and melodically restrained Song of Joy, I thought I was in for a long, bumpy road. But I can’t deny that Cave’s vocals have a certain hypnotic swagger.
Stagger Lee continues the restrained musical sound I didn’t expect from the Bad Seeds. Again, Cave and his provocative lyrics do all the heavy lifting. With Henry Lee, we get the first of several duets, in this instance, it’s PJ Harvey sharing the vocals. While the preceding tracks are all about masculine domination, there’s an obvious effort to aim for more beauty in this song to suit the added femininity of Polly Jean.
All atmosphere and anticipation, Lovely Creature is somehow driving and meandering at the same time. And then there’s duet number two, Where the Wild Roses Grow, featuring Kylie Minogue. This was unavoidable on release, and I can’t think of a song more likely to make a 15 year old me turn against Nick Cave. In fact, this one song is quite possibly entirely responsible for my anti Nick Cave stance all these years since. Sure, I can appreciate its merits on paper now, but that initial feeling will always linger deep down.
An accordion fuelled jaunt, The Curse of Milhaven is the kind of playfulness I never expected from Nick Cave or his Bad Seeds. Of course, that playfulness is offset by lyrics like, “All of God’s children, you’re gonna die”. But that juxtaposition is what makes it one of Murder Ballads real stand outs. It’s also the best use of Cave’s menacing growl.
The Kindness of Strangers is surprisingly straight forward and simple, compared to my idea of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all these years. I don’t know if ‘boring’ is the word, but it’s certainly unremarkable and unambitious. Crow Jane returns to the restrained feel of the opening tracks, wihch is a shame. Because the momentum Murder Ballads had going until now was the key to everything I was starting to like about it.
Late in the album comes O’Malley’s Bar. 14 minutes of exactly what I expected from Murder Ballads. It’s the perfect place for an opus like this. Because if you’ve lasted this long, you’re probably on board for this quarter of an hour tome. If you’re not going to enjoy it, chances are you’ve pulled the pin on this album long before this point.
Now that I’ve listened to an entire Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album beginning to end, I still don’t think I like them. But I think I at least respect them and can kind of see the appeal for others. While the music is less pretentious and indulgent than I expected, Cave himself proves to be even more of a pompous windbag than I ever accused him of being. But that’s OK, if being lead singer in a band isn’t the place for pompous windbaggery, where is?