Thursday, October 8, 2009

And just when you thought you were safe - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, "Murder Ballads"

After all the grace and beauty of Bon Iver’s winter in the snow yesterday, it seemed a change of mood was called for, and who better to bring you back to the grit and grime of the real world than Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and what better album to do it with than his gruesome Murder Ballads?

These songs are pretty morbid, even by Nick Cave standards; but when these grisly yarns of gratuitous killing are told with that irresistibly grungy voice and to the accompaniment of those trademark backings that reek with the smell of life’s underbelly, you can’t help being more than a little seduced.

And while Nick Cave might not exactly be the sort of person you would want to take home to meet Mum, there is little doubting his ability to capture the grotesque, to amplify it, and to make it sexy.

The grim journey of Murder Ballads starts with “Song of Joy”, a tale told to us in cold detachment by a man whose wife and three daughters are slaughtered at night by the knife of a serial killer who writes passages from John Milton in his victims’ blood on the wall. There could hardly be a better – if better is the word – way to set the scene: your blood has already gone cold, you have already checked that the doors are locked and that the lights are all on, and you’ve still got another nine tracks to go.

He’s joined in places by luminaries who even I have heard of – P J Harvey, on the calm, creepy song of unrequited love, “Henry Lee”; Kylie Minogue, on the soft and sinister duet of love and murder, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”.

For songs that all tell stories of such unrelenting ugliness, there are some amazing contrasts here – like the gruesome, jaunty jollity of “The Curse of Millhaven” against the slow, gentle but horrendous song of poor Mary Bellows in “The Kindness of Strangers”: the sort of music you would dance to with your lover in a slow warm embrace were it not about a woman being found “cuffed to her bed, a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head”.

The strength of these contrasts, between the songs and within them, is a crucial part of Nick Cave’s brilliance – and it's what makes his music so unique, so recognisable and so utterly enticing. He brings a rugged sexiness to everything that’s ugly, and a dark, hideous hue to everything that’s beautiful.

Every song is drenched in atmosphere – captured through skeletal jingles on the pianos; quietly sinister organ passages; dark, driving beats; stabs from electric guitars: all mixed in a deep, cavernous acoustic where you find yourself looking over your shoulder at every little thing that goes bump in the night.

These songs, with their resolve to show you everything that is grotesque and misshapen in life, and to turn it into music so good that you just can’t make yourself look away, are the songs that Mahler would have wished he had written if he had heard them.

Murder Ballads finishes with a cover of Dylan’s “Death is not the End” – where Cave and Kylie and P J Harvey, and others, seem to step forward, as you cower in the corner, and to provide you some words, and some music, of reassurance. It’s a nice song, but I’m not sure it really means to be as convincing as it at first seems and, in any case, I’m leaving the lights on, and the doors locked, for just a little bit longer.

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