Wednesday, October 24, 2012

13 Days of Halloween, 13 Wicked Albums: Day 7

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads (1996)
On the last review, I noted that I have a personal preference for the "malevolently supernatural" in the horror genre. It may seem strange then that among this list of wicked albums I have Murder Ballads, a record that doesn't deal in the occult, the Satanic, or anything of the sort, but rather revolves exclusively around the all-too-human act of murder. The cover art brings to mind Stephen King's Misery, which toys with the balance between our fear of isolation and our fear of other people, and this is also a recurring theme throughout the album. We are social animals, some of us desperate to avoid loneliness, and others who manipulate this desire to destructive ends. In Murder Ballads, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds give us a reflection of the inhumanity in humanity.

For me, a great amount of the appeal to this album comes from its interplay of dark and light, yin and yang. There are tracks like "Song of Joy" and "The Kindness of Strangers," which inundate the listener with a somber and sorrowful mood. Then there are tracks like "The Curse of Millhaven" and "O'Malley's Bar" that turn up the tempo to a fun, playful beat. Lyrically, there are songs that tip-toe through subtle implications designed to let the imagination wander, such as "Lovely Creature." On the other hand, there are songs that are unapologetic in their dark and direct storytelling, like the already mentioned (and ironically named) "Song of Joy." Stylistically, the killings come in a wide variety, from blues and rock 'n' roll to slow dance ballads and jazzy country. Nick Cave has quite a range to his voice, but usually sticks with a deep and smooth baritone. Often times it's the bizarre combination of vibrant music with dismal lyrics and vocals that makes for the creepiest experiences on the album.

To touch briefly on the stories told in the songs, they take a variety of forms too. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" - probably the best known track off the album - tells the tale of a man who seduces and murders a woman, leaving her among the roses. "Henry Lee" is about a woman who kills a man out of jealousy and/or because he spurns her advances. "Song of Joy" presents the murder of a man's family as told through a recounting of the details to a bartender (it may be implied that the father was the murderer). "O'Malley's Bar" is a 14-minute description of how a disgruntled townsperson goes on a killing spree in a bar. Thus, rather than continually heaping depression upon the listener, Nick Cave and co. at least try to keep things entertaining by throwing in variations on their central theme.

Murder Ballads does conclude on a more positive note, too, with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End." I can't recommend this album for everyone, especially not for those who might be bothered by some fairly graphic murder stories, but it is one wicked record that may appeal to horror fans who prefer less heavy and aggressive genres, as well as those who like to vary things up from time to time or are generally open to diverse styles of music. The overall atmosphere is beautiful and yet brooding, like storm clouds brewing over a blood red sunset. An integral part to a lot of horror is that ray of light that allows for the slimmest glimmer of hope. The darkness may be strong, but the winter will pass, as it always does, and the harvest time will come again.

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