Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Murder Ballads - Review
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critics' view

Following on from Mute’s 2010 reissuing of expanded, audiophile-pleasing, remastered (5.1 and stereo) versions of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey, The Good Son and Henry’s Dream, the label is giving the band’s remaining 90s albums the same treatment. So alongside this fantastic new presentation of 1996’s blood-splashed Murder Ballads, fans can pick up new editions of 1994’s Let Love In and 97’s exquisite The Boatman’s Call, as well as 2001’s underrated (and post-best of) No More Shall We Part. Things could get expensive, quickly.

Naturally, these releases are aimed at newcomers as much as they are long-standing admirers of Cave et al – the extras will appeal to the latter group, but all four albums are worth the time of an absolute beginner. Murder Ballads makes for a testing starting point though, as the frontman and his cohorts deliver an uncompromised vision of savage violence, presented in such detail that the squeamish are advised to skip to its heavy-hearted but PG-rated follow-up. But The Bad Seeds have always been about drama, about death and lust; about messing around with people that aren’t to be messed around with, chasing skirt that will only lead a man to madness. So why not take the plunge? Murder Ballads represents the very darkest depths of the band’s 90s output.

Two tracks from this set appear on the group’s 1998 best-of, and both are duets. The first, Henry Lee, features Cave’s ex-partner PJ Harvey – their break-up would inspire a number of songs on The Boatman’s Call. The second is Cave’s biggest UK hit single to date: Where the Wild Roses Grow, featuring Kylie Minogue. The pint-sized star’s presence does go some way towards explaining the song’s commercial success; but its video, included here, also played a significant part. A striking work inspired by John Everett Millais’ 1852 painting Ophelia, it sees Cave’s character lay Minogue’s to rest in a shallow pond after killing her with a rock (unsurprisingly, that part of the story isn’t shown). It’s a piece of pop history which retains its haunting quality to this day.

And there’s plenty more brilliance where those two came from. Stagger Lee is one of the finest foul-mouthed songs ever committed to tape, a swaggering tale of prostitutes and pistols, muddy roads and bloody murder – don’t listen to it in the car when taking your mum shopping. O’Malley’s Bar is novel-like in its detail of a furious killing spree. It’s an endurance test at over 14 minutes long, but not a second is wasted, Cave rambling with glee as the song’s antagonist sets about his wicked work. Opener Song of Joy is an unsettling curtain-up – it’s never completely clear whether the John Milton-quoting narrator has killed his own children or, in fact, he’s fleeing a similar fate.

The title says it all, really: Murder Ballads. You get just that and, given the musicians at work, everything’s expectedly brilliant. The extras, including talking-head contributions from St Vincent’s Annie Clark, photographer Steve Gullick and BBC Music reviewer Luke Turner (among various Bad Seeds, musicians and critics), are simply the sweetest icing on a deliciously crimson cake.

Mike Diver
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The BBC's album reviews ended in 2013, although the pages are archived for retrospective reading. external-link.png

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