Music Features

A Third Round of Reintroductions For Nick Cave #1 — Let Love In & Murder Ballads

Fans of Nick Cave should be used to this by now.

Mute Records’ new wave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissues came out May 17th, following 2009’s venerable treatments of From Her To Eternity, The Firstborn Is Dead, Kicking Against The Pricks and Your Funeral…My Trial and 2010’s Tender Prey, The Good Son and Henry’s DreamLet Love In, Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part likely define the Bad Seeds as they’ve come to be known: goth-centric balladeers, suit-clad, aging and theatrical; their songs equivalent to a written page of character-based narrative and dramatic exposition. 

As accompaniment to the re-mastered albums, a continuing documentary series examining Cave and the Bad Seeds by filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard features members of the band, (Cave in absentia), and a host of admirers.  As the talking heads exhale their admiration and band members espouse their wisdom, the significance and rather unique progression of this band becomes very apparent.  A decade or more after From Her To Eternity’s minimalist gothic-tinged blues introduced Cave’s post-Birthday Party vision, both Let Love In and Murder Ballads take more of an ensemble approach, their sound refined and layered, almost like a group Vegas bound lounge-oids playing Baker Boys to Cave’s expansive and dark croon of a novel.  The man is all stories.

While both Let Love In and Murder Ballads cater to a more macabre sophistication, (especially Murder Ballads), there’s also a tenderness that betrays to some extent the music’s morbid focus.  In Let Love In's documentary, Bad Seed multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey observes, “I think in the 90s we came to have a more reliable band with musicians where there were musicians who were very strong and were capable of contributing more.” 

For Do You Love Me?, Cave asks as much in a cold and angst-laden yet desperate manner, heartstrings strung up like a noose around Cave’s throat as he relates, “All things move toward their end/I knew before I met her that I would lose her.”  Both Cave’s vocal and piano strokes demand attention, his keys ever so delicately dancing along Martyn Casey’s bass groove, Blixa Bargeld synching his guitar notes to Thomas Wydler’s snare drum.  There is a precedent set with Do You Love Me?, a near-suite of a musical approach providing Cave the full backdrop required to express the full breadth of his storied pain.  The lush harmonies the band generates for Nobody’s Baby Now, (a song originally written for Johnny Cash), is almost 180° off the severity of Do You Love Me?, a lighter passion narrating still a tale of lost love.

Following then with the rather grand amplification unleashed for Loverman, the relatively mindless rocking of Jangling Jack, and then the slow and sultry mood of Red Right Hand, Let Love In pulls together the band’s eccentricities and maintains a perfect level of listenership comparable to a record nerd’s collection of mixtapes.  It’s just a perfect combination of slow and loud, fast and loud, slow and moody…  even as this threesome follows with the album’s drifting and lovely title track, up tempo Thirsty Dog and then the very theatrical Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore, there is special attention to the album as an object and not just a concept.  How the album plays is just as important as how it was written and performed. 

Future Bad Seed violinist, Warren Ellis, makes his debut on Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore: it’s slow thud and ghostly piano almost buried beneath the restlessness of bowed strings.  From there, Let Love In builds its outro with Lay Me Low and the reconsidered Do You Love Me? (Part Two).

Red Right Hand, interestingly, exists as two songs: Where The Action Is, which is included as a bonus track for the Let Love In reissue, and Red Right Hand #2, which morphed into Murder Ballads’ opener, Song of Joy.

“At the end of Let Love In,” explains Blixa Bargeld, “Nick had a couple of songs left.  I think he had about two songs left and they were both murder songs.”

Murder Ballads was an idea that germinated from both Song Of Joy and O’Mallley’s Bar, neither of which really fit the mold of Let Love In.  Here, Cave’s penchant for narrative takes center stage, though the Bad Seeds continued scoring his words in ensemble-level, mood enhancing tones and melodies.  Despite Cave’s dramatic account of his wife’s murder in Song Of Joy, you can’t get around how the band helps him out, the slow, hollow percussion and the pronounced piano chords striking like bells tolled on a rainy evening. 

With Murder Ballads, there’s age to these stories, as if they’re all based upon generations' worth of folk music and traditional folklore.  That being said, in more than one instance, Cave turns to traditional ballads for inspiration and takes a few liberties, most notably with Stagger Lee.

As far as reinterpreting a traditional song, Cave’s Stagger Lee takes gangsta rap’s dick-slinging swagger and an abundance of profanity and basically reinvents the song.  As far as Cave’s concerned, Stagger Lee is a “bad motherfucker,” the type of “bad motherfucker” that’ll “crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy’s asshole.”  Casey basically gyrates his bass line; guitars are choked while the piano’s keys sing pristine over Cave’s explicit words.  Bargeld shrieks the song to an unsettling close, its groove carried out till it fades.

Really, though, the depth of murder and depravity addressed in Murder Ballads takes on very human undertones, the album’s feminine presence granting its subject matter an opportunity to sound kind of beautiful.  PJ Harvey’s appearance in Henry Lee, (another revised tune based in tradition), calms any assumed machismo that Stagger Lee might’ve generated, death, in this case, by the female’s hand.  Kyle Minogue speaks from beyond the grave in Where The Wild Roses Grow, detailing the events leading up to her death.  Cave’s perp smashes her head in with a rock.  He seemingly acts with a sense of remorse, though, his actions possibly beyond his control. 

Even as ghostly backdrops these voices act as an angelic means of reaching past the characters’ realities, providing songs like Lovely Creatures and Crow Jane a sense of vastness or tension.  It’s an excellent device and it brings a lot of feeling and heart to an album that may otherwise be dismissed as a mere professorially told and self-indulgent collection of stories about offing people.  The crying at the end of The Kindness of Strangers makes the already tragic tale of Mary Bellows harder to bear.

The album’s most brilliant moment, for me, though is The Curse of Millhaven, which is a fascinating tent-revival of a song so beautifully written and captivating it demands 100% of my attention every time I listen to it.  It’s sickeningly gleeful, Cave’s young Loretta the evil presence at the center of Millhaven’s misfortune.  Cave sings, “They ask me if I feel remorse/And I answer, ‘Why, of course!’/’There’s so much more I could’ve done if they’d let me!’”  You almost root for this young girl despite her wrongdoings, and it’s because of Cave’s exuberance.

Murder Ballads ends with a Bob Dylan cover, Death Is Not The End.  Band members and contributors (Shane MacGowan as another guest appearance) join in singing a verse apiece, the song’s chorus sung in a unified and gentle rally towards lifting the spirits a bit.  Death is exchanged for celebration.