By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
When listening to Murder Ballads, you can't help but compare it to recent media events--the films of Quentin Tarantino, the televising of the O.J. Simpson trial--that offer murder as a cheap-thrill hayride. Such is the niche Nick Cave carved for himself as early as 1980, when he led the furiously histrionic Birthday Party: His live shows used to be exercises in self-mutilation, and murder was as omnipresent as smoke and blood. Cave has always found rich humor in the macabre, a rare gift available only to those who rubbed shoulders with the Grim Reaper and got him to buy the first round.
Cave is a storyteller more than he is a pop musician, anyway, his morbid fables becoming as cathartic as Greek tragedy. He's alternately the casualty ("Song of Joy," "Henry Lee") and cause ("Lovely Creature") of violence here, but either way he's holding the bloody knife. In his version of the folk song "Stagger Lee," the legendary black outlaw offs a bunch of people at a bar, which only impresses the local hooker; she offers her charms for free, only to hear Lee angrily declare that he'll "crawl over 50 good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole." Cave's delivery is so convincing it could send a gangsta rapper ducking for cover, his voice possessing the growling promise of terror. Only when the punch line comes--after that fat boy got on his knees and "slobbered on [Stagger's] head," Stagger Lee blew the boy's brains out--do you realize there is a sick chuckle beneath all the badassness.
"Where the Wild Roses Grow," Cave's unlikely duet with Australian pop idol Kylie Minogue, is a double-wicked whammy--a beautifully orchestrated hymn in which the killer smashes the head of his lover with a rock while whispering that "all beauty must die." But the best of the heap is the 14-minute opus "O'Malley's Bar," with its fascinating lexical flash and gut-wrenching, breathless delivery that would make Dylan envious and others quake.
Over a finger-snapping lounge shuffle, the narcissistic killer recounts a mass slaughter with orgasmic glee. As he proceeds to kill every single person in the place while brandishing a hard-on ("my dick felt long and hard"), he meticulously lists every gruesome detail with cannibalistic misanthropy: "Her head landed in the sink with all the dirty dishes"; "the bullet...blew his bowels on the floor"; "His blood spilled across the bar." Appropriately enough, the killer looks exactly like Cave--"dime thin of an enviable height...hair like a raven's wing." You can picture him as he leaves the bar, blowing smoke off his gun and laughing wildly.