ESSAY BY JIM SCLAVUNOS
Each successive album in Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ catalogue can to some extent be seen as an effort by the band to define and redefine themselves and their music. Propelled by an ever-shifting restless creative energy, the momentum that had been mounting throughout their earlier albums attained a high point on 1994’s Let Love In, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ eighth studio album, which in Mick Harvey’s estimation constituted “almost the perfect consummation.”
From Nick’s point of view however, the background to Let Love In was personally painful and the end result far from perfect. For the moment at least, he was done with catharsis and the vulnerable confessional tone that had crept in to his lyrics. “I really didn’t want to have anything more to do with examining my misfortunes,” he protests — but where would the next step lead?
Toward the end of Bad Seed (Ian Johnston’s autobiography of Nick Cave), a fleeting clue is dropped about a new song Cave was in the process of writing at the time. With the working title of “Red Right Hand II”, it relates the tale of a father of three that murders his entire family — the very same scenario laid out in “Song of Joy”, the opening track of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds 1996 album Murder Ballads. The references to “his red right hand” and other Miltonian citations sprinkled throughout link the two songs; but the gory details in “Song of Joy” make it clear that Cave had left behind the baleful romantic brooding of Let Love In, and this was to be a more bloodthirsty successor.
Reaching back to Birthday Party days, Cave’s lyrics never suffered for lack of violence. Proto-murder balladry weaves throughout Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ oeuvre in the form of both cover songs and originals; but the notion of a flagrantly slaughter-themed album had been on Cave’s mind for a while. “It actually started as a joke,” he explains. “The idea of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds dedicating an entire album to murder appealed to us in some way.”
What finally set the album in motion was the demo session for Cave’s epic, “O’Malley’s Bar” which he sang at the piano, accompanied by Mick Harvey on bass and Thomas Wydler on drums. The song first came to Nick while on tour: “I woke up one morning hungover at the hotel swimming pool in Germany somewhere. There was a party going on — a bunch of German holidaymakers doing whatever those sorts of people do, but doing it very noisily. I didn’t really have the energy to be able to get off the banana lounge and find my room, so instead I wrote a song and gave the holidaymakers names and described them and, well, executed them on the page.” Cave’s poolside jottings soon became a diary notebook that he would supplement whenever someone irritated him in the course of his travels. “It became a shaggy dog story, a blood-soaked shaggy dog story,” ending up at thirty-eight sprawling verses.
Official sessions for the album (initially titled Lovely Creatures) began in earnest in Australia, a few months after the drug-addled fiasco of the band’s US Lollapalooza tour and subsequent post-tour meltdown. Along the way the band picked up a new member: Jim Sclavunos, percussionist and native New Yorker. Jim, who first met Nick and Mick back in The Birthday Party days through Lydia Lunch, had drummed with a multitude of bands over the years, recording with Sonic Youth, The Cramps, and — one of young Blixa Bargeld’s favorite bands back in the day — notorious No Wave legends Teenage Jesus & the Jerks.
Murder Ballads is dappled throughout with Jim’s varied percussion and drumming; but he also jump-started an unanticipated last-minute contribution to the album in the form of a book. “We had nearly reached the end of the Murder Ballads overdub sessions when I presented an anthology of “toasts” — that is, poems that pimps and other criminal types recite to each other in jail for entertainment. Contained in the volume was a particularly lurid version of ‘Stagger Lee’.”
An impromptu arrangement for “Stagger Lee” was hastily organized around a sinuously ominous bass line that Martyn Casey devised on the spot, Sclavunos’ funky groove and a thundering chord that Conway Savage pounded out on the grand piano. One single glorious take later, and Murder Ballads reaped its final windfall track.
Despite the album’s appalling subject matter, Conway Savage points out, “It’s always been loosely referred to in the band as a ‘comedy’ record.” Not only is the album rife with dark humour, some tracks positively radiate an inappropriately joyful mood. A virtual open invitation was extended to sundry family and friends to drop by the studio during the recording of the album. Co-producer Tony Cohen recollects seeing “probably more than twenty people sitting around the floor, shaking things and banging things and having a laugh.” Mick Harvey remembers a brisk, unfussy attitude towards getting takes: “We just trundled through everything and listened to it two days later.” Cave observes that “We learned a lot from that record: that the recording experience can be playful.” Martyn Casey affirms, “It’s a party record.”
Despite all that, Cave maintains that the underlying objective was “to make a record that would piss people off”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cave’s plan backfired, thanks at least in part to the cavalcade of guest stars invited to participate: Shane MacGowan, Anita Lane, PJ Harvey, and most notably, Kylie Minogue.
Nick had long harbored a mildly fetishistic fascination for the woman he dubbed Australia’s “national treasure” and openly expressed interest in working with her. Nick and Kylie’s mums helped relay messages between them, and soon arrangements were set for Kylie to record her vocals on “Where The Wild Roses Grow”, a composition Cave wrote for her to duet with him. Inspired by the 19th century traditional tune “The Willow Garden” (aka “Rose Conley”), Nick explains, “It was only when I wrote this song, which is a dialogue between a killer and his victim, that I thought finally I’d written the right song for Kylie to sing. I sent the song to her and she replied the next day.”
Nick imagines Kylie may have agreed to the session with some slight trepidation and acknowledges, “It probably didn’t seem like the greatest career move.” When she arrived at the studio, it was the first time the two were actually face-to-face. Kylie had prepped for this momentous encounter by speed-reading Johnston’s Bad Seed to learn a bit about Nick’s background; but to her relief found the man to be nothing like what she expected.
Gently coaching her, Nick asked Kylie to rein in her vocal prowess. “Make it smaller, smaller, smaller,” she remembers him advising. “Make it like you’re telling the story, you’re speaking it.” Kylie also had the superb advantage of Blixa’s pre-recorded guide vocal for a template. “I volunteered in doing the female part for ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’,” offers Blixa. “I thought it amazing that she really did it exactly in the same phrasing with the same pauses: that’s a great professional! Of course, my phrasing is odd and she did repeat the same odd phrasing.” Blixa’s rendition (which ultimately saw the light of day on the B-Sides & Rarities compilation) is not only odd; it is, in Cave’s words “seriously creepy with a capital K”.
Murder Ballads remains Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds biggest worldwide success to date. The single “Where Wild Roses Grow” reached number 11 in the UK Singles Chart, breaking the Top Ten in several European countries, and was certified Gold in Germany and Australia. MTV even nominated Nick Cave for their “Best Male Artist” award that year; but the nomination was withdrawn at Cave’s personal request.
Gently coaching her, Nick asked Kylie to rein in her vocal prowess. “Make it smaller, smaller, smaller,” she remembers him advising. “Make it like you’re telling the story, you’re speaking it.”