Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Murder Ballads


Country music still conjures up images of rhinestone cowboys and mechanical bulls in a lot of rock ‘n’ roll minds. But long before “Achy Breaky Heart,” country music meant the bittersweet folk ballads and gospel songs of the American frontier. It was, and still is, the music of our nation’s history. Every ten years or so, during the gasps between rock movements, another country revival surfaces. Between 50s rock and acid rock came the 60s folk revival. Later, as the 60s wallowed in drug abuse, the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds gave birth to country-rock. On the edge of disco the Eagles created a mellower hybrid, sometimes referred to as California country. And out of new wave’s ashes the Mekons rocked with country-punk. Now that grunge is at the point of caricature, a similar revival is taking place–note the successes of “Americana” bands Son Volt and Wilco.

But even in the inhospitable territory of MTV, country music seeps through every once in a while. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, thoroughly modern in fishnets and eye shadow, borrowed Mother McCollum’s 1930s African-American gospel classic “Jesus Is My Air-O-Plane” to create their latest hit, “Aeroplane.” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Kurt Cobain’s poignant take on the traditional folk blues gothic “In the Pines,” was the climax of Nirvana’s posthumous album, MTV Unplugged in New York. And now new music from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds invokes the ghost of country music, which is as old as the hills we’ve built our shopping malls on, but still vital.

Traditional American music has its roots in ballads brought to North America by Anglo-Celtic immigrants, and this music soon flowered into a new sound, uniquely American, full of the social conservatism of farming communities and the rhythm and vocal qualities of slave music. Traditional ballads about knights and fair maids once sung by medieval European troubadours were transformed into songs about cowboys and drifters, unwed mothers, and haunted coal mines. The violin and guitar, once parlor instruments of the European aristocracy, and the banjo, descendant of West African gourd instruments, became the vehicles of expression for poor whites and blacks–that tense mixing of disparate cultures that still defines us as Americans. With the rise of urban centers and the civil rights movement, rural culture came to represent outdated beliefs and the dark stain of slavery, but a taste for its tragic, timeless themes has lingered.

Nick Cave’s new record, Murder Ballads, is a fascinating look at the turbulent history of American music. The songs draw from tragic American archetypes–wandering serial killers, barroom gunslingers, innocent girls fallen prey to con artists. Cave’s leap of genius is to mix these tales in a modern cauldron, updating traditional horror stories with the explicit language and rhythm of rap and his own sanguinary contributions to the genre. With graphically violent lyrics, liberal use of the word “motherfucker,” and macho-rap vocals delivered with his trademark gallows baritone, Cave shows us how Snoop Doggy Dogg connects to the Carter Family in the continuum of American music. The resulting songs are cathartic tales of sex and death that seem at once ancient and completely modern. “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a duet between Cave and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue, is reminiscent of old folk songs like “Down in the Willow Garden,” where the taboos of premarital sex battle metaphors of flowering nature and lead to murder. “On the third day he took me to the river,” Minogue sings. “He showed me the roses and we kissed / And the last thing I heard was a muttered word / As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist.”

“Stagger Lee” is Cave’s rewriting of the turn-of-the-century song, a story of murder beginning with the theft of a Stetson hat. In Cave’s version, Stagger Lee forces his cowboy rival to give him a blow job before getting pumped full of lead. “The Curse of Millhaven” is Cave’s updating of songs like “Tom Dooley,” where a murderer sings regretfully of his deeds as the sheriff prepares a hanging rope. In Cave’s version the murderer is a young girl who gleefully looks back on her small-town murder spree from the comfort of a mental hospital: “They ask me if I feel remorse and I answer, ‘Why of course! / There’s so much more I could have done!'”

Innocent ears hearing Cave’s latest release without knowledge of old-time murder ballads might find it coarse and unfeeling. But a listen to the Coon Creek Girls’ 1938 recording of the folk classic “Pretty Polly”–with lyrics like “Pretty Polly you’re guessin’ about right / I dug on your grave the biggest part of the last night”–remind us that this bone-chilling narrative genre is an expression of the wanton violence and aggression that’s been part of the American psyche from Native American massacres to shoot-outs in the Robert Taylor Homes.

American music has evolved lightning fast–a chain reaction of sound upon sound–from the Hawaiian guitar and Mexican polka that trickled into Nashville to the British invasion that transformed rock ‘n’ roll. But essential elements of its original quality remain, sometimes buried down deep but rearing their head now and again. Folklorist Alan Lomax argues that musical styles are one of the most conservative of cultural traits, holding for the musician the link to childhood, religious experience, and community life. “An entirely new set of tunes or rhythms…may be introduced; but, in its overall character, a musical style will remain intact.” Our traditional music has been informed by the uniqueness of America–a land of infinite prosperity and freedom, yet also of great misfortune and poverty. And lasting in it to this day is its sense of tragedy without pity.