• Courtney E. Smith

Nick Cave’s Blood-Drenched Exploration Of Murder Ballads

Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen have made notable use of murder ballads in the course of their careers, but as far as modern-day interpretations and original compositions in the genre go, Nick Cave has made a play to own it beyond the scope of any other artist. Hand in hand with his band the Bad Seeds, the men (and a few important women in his duets) crafted a macabre cabaret album aptly titled Murder Ballads.

Cave has always been the morose man’s idol; a modern-day Charles Bukowski who tosses off lyrics rife with darkness, despair and perversions with the kind of looseness other singers use to croon about falling in love or obsessing over their designer label lifestyles. His early ’80s band, the Birthday Party, were loosely associated with the goth music tag (by journalists, not by the band), imbuing Cave with a tint perceived darkness from the start.

He’s never hesitated to play up to his reputation as a dark intellectual, the man whose literary references run deeper than yours; who’ll take violent imagery well beyond the limits of what polite society allows; and who’ll push his obsession with death right under the light for a full examination.

His ability to go further than anyone else and then take a step further than that is apparent on his reworking of the murder ballad classic “Stagger Lee.” The track originates from the late 19th century, with first publication coming in 1911. It’s the true story of a black pimp, with all the cliched plumage that word implies, who shot a rival. Lloyd Price’s No. 1 version of the song from 1959 is a dramatic pop arrangement that many, from James Brown to Ike & Tina Turner, followed the blueprint of in order to re-record. Mississipi John Hurt’s decidedly more austere folk version is the blueprint for interpretations by Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead.

Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee” falls somewhere between the two, instrumentally, and adds in certain industrial elements. But what’s really new here are the lyrics Cave adds. What has historically been a straightforward tale of an argument about gambling between pimps is turned into an f-bomb ridden exploration of perverse desires including sodomy, sexual dominance, and naked male bravado. And that’s all well before the title character gets around to shooting his rival.

The most famous track to come from Murder Ballads was Cave’s duet with fellow Australian star, Kylie Minogue. He partnered with the singer when she was attempting to mature her image, after huge success in the late ’80s and early ’90s in teen pop, and cast her as the already-dead lover in a murder ballad detailing how he killed her. The collaboration gave Minogue a certain credibility and became the closest thing to a pop hit Cave would ever have, being certified as a gold single in Australia, reaching the top 10 in the U.K. and winning single and song of the year at the 1996 ARIA Awards (Australia’s GRAMMY equivalent).

If the modern-day murder ballad has evolved into a myth-maker for hip-hop artists and a chart-topper for country artists, Nick Cave is the strange and depraved rock poet who leads the charge at keeping the genre of murder ballads alive — and making it more wicked and deviant than ever before.

This story was originally published on June 6, 2013.

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