'All Beauty Must Die': A look back at Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads

Category:  Music
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 8:59 PM

“Have mercy on me, sir / Allow me to impose on you / I have no place to stay / And my bones are cold right through / I will tell you a story…”

These themes appear quite often in the works of Nick Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds. The consequences of loves gone wrong, the question of whether or not there is a bigger power out there, tales of violence and gore...all of these concepts also fill out his 9th record, “Murder Ballads,” which was released in 1996. Crimes of passion are something that only Nick Cave can make grotesque and beautiful at the same time.

In fact, every track on the record involves a murder of some sort, as the title would suggest. The album is very theatrical in nature, as its use of poetic lyrics are put over gorgeous piano pieces, dark and dingy guitar sounds, and yes, even wild, primal, unhinged screaming on one occasion.

The song in question is “Stagger Lee,” a variation on a traditional song that surfaced in the 1920s. The track tells the tale — a villainous, vulgar, violent, and oddly vivacious tale — of the murder of a young man named Billy Lyons in the late 1800s by Stag Lee Shelton. The legend itself is chock-full of mystery, and Cave’s version of the song gives the tale depth as the killer, extremely sexually confused, decides that not one person in the small town is capable of rivaling him.

The gut-wrenching screeching comes from Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld and is meant to symbolize the force of release — both metaphorical (the lyrics make this graphically obvious in the climax of the song being a euphemism for “shooting” in the sense of releasing sexual tension) and literal, i.e. in the sense of a gunshot. Bargeld himself was extremely important to the band, ranging from its infancy to its gain in popularity between the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Also a founding member of German experimental/industrial outfit Einstürzende Neubauten, Bargeld’s guitar work and unconventional vocal moments can be heard throughout this record. He also lent his songwriting talents to the track “Lovely Creatures,” an album entry that displays some dark country influence in the vein of Johnny Cash.

Another standout track on the album is the haunting “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a duet with Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue. It’s an unlikely pairing between someone who is known to be bright and sunny with a light and airy sound, and someone who is famous for his dark, brooding appearance and deep, seductive voice.
The song gives an account of a man and the woman he murders, Eliza Day, and each gives their side of the days that lead up to her death. Eliza questions why she’s referred to as “The Wild Rose,” implying that she might not know she’s been murdered.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are a band that can change and manipulate their sound in any way they want, yet it will still sound like something only Nick Cave can write. “Murder Ballads” is one of his best, showcasing his ability to make even the most grotesque songwriting the most beautiful.

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