A subgenre of the traditional ballad, a “murder ballad” is a song in which the lyrics create a narrative surrounding a crime or otherwise grisly death. Examples of murder ballads include anything from “Cell Block Tango” from the musical Chicago to “No Body, No Crime,” by Taylor Swift. So by the time that Australian rock (I like to call them “blues punk,” personally) band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds had released their ninth studio album, Murder Ballads, in 1996, the band had already proven a comfortable association with songs about death, suffering and weird guys. And an earlier dalliance with the murder ballad can be found in prior Bad Seeds songs like “Up Jumped the Devil” (Tender Prey), “John Finn’s Wife” (Henry’s Dream) and their cover of the murder ballad rock standard “Hey Joe” (Kicking Against The Pricks).
Murder Ballads, the album (which celebrated its 25th anniversary back in February), is comprised of a collection of both traditional and original murder ballads, populated by a veritable who’s-who of sadists, deviants and lunatics that varies from song to song. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before I, a writer who prides herself on writing regularly about sex, death, hotness and dateability, and who has recently become annoyingly obsessed with Nick Cave and is constantly looking for any angle from which to write about him, would find a way to merge all these niches together into an irreverent, meaningless article in which I task myself with [checks notes] ranking the murderers of Murder Ballads by their dateability. Thanks very much to the esteemed editors over at Paste Magazine, who encourage me to do things like this at the expense of all that is respectable in the journalism field. In any case, here are the killers of Murder Ballads, ranked by how dateable they would be if they didn’t kill you. I sure hope that Nick Cave never sees this.
The American folktale of Stagger Lee has been told and retold countless times since the historical figure’s first appearance dating back to the late 19th century. But Cave’s iteration of the ruthless pimp is particularly unhinged and, consequently, particularly undateable. The song slightly changes a number of the murky facts attributed to the titular man and the night he killed Billy Lyons, along with Lee’s demeanor, which is shifted further into that of a wholly sadistic killing machine. He enters a bar one day and kills everyone inside for no reason other than the bartender didn’t know who he was. Not to mention, he’s got a cumshot that can end a person’s life.
That’s not a joke—Cave once confirmed on his blog that guitarist Blixa Bargeld’s shrieking at the end of the track is indicative of Billy being killed by the force of Stagger Lee’s ejaculate, after Lee commanded Billy to suck his dick and “filled him full of lead.” But at the end of the day, Lee doesn’t even care about sex in comparison to murder. He tells a woman who wants to sleep with him that he’d rather kill than get “50 good pussies.” You can’t be with a guy who’s that committed to the grind.
The tragic story of “Henry Lee” is an alternately arranged variation of the ancient Scottish folk ballad “Young Hunting.” The lyrics detail a woman who discovers that her lover has plans to leave her for another, prettier woman, and so she kills him. Cave’s variant—a devastatingly horny duet with English singer PJ Harvey, whom he was dating at the time—is more vague as to the details leading up to Henry Lee’s demise. The song even makes it come across like the woman in the song is Henry’s mistress, who is goading him to sleep with her and leave the other woman he’s in love with. But then he reveals to the mistress that he’s decided to stop sleeping with her, and she lashes out. Read that way, I wouldn’t recommend dating the woman who killed poor Henry Lee. Ultimately, jealousy is just not attractive.
The town of Millhaven has been plagued by a serial killer, as sung about by the song’s narrator: a 15-year-old girl named Lottie. Of course, we soon learn that Lottie isn’t the green-eyed, golden-haired angel she puts forth—that it is she who bears the title of the Curse of Millhaven. Impressively, the teenager had killed well over 20 people starting as early as when she was a young child, before a botched stabbing of one Mrs. Colgate allowed the half-killed woman to reveal the identity of her attacker. Lottie has since been sent away to a psychiatric ward, where she’s permanently blissed-out on a cocktail of prescription medications to keep her fiendish impulses at bay.
In this case, I’d say the main thing that eliminates Lottie’s placement on the dating market is that she’s locked up in an insane asylum, but beyond that, she’s pretty emotionally unavailable. It’d be a bit difficult getting through the metaphorical walls that Lottie has put up around herself in the form of serial murdering. But it’s possible that the right guy (or gal, who knows) could soften her, and bring her down from people-killing to, like, animal-killing.
It’s hard to say who killed the titular creature, but this track’s air of madness lends itself to the safe assumption that the narrator is guilty of her death. The narrator ruminates on a beautiful woman he came across one day, who donned green ribbons in her hair and green gloves on her hands. He asks her to walk with him and she allegedly agrees to his request, the two traveling some great distance together. But then, out of nowhere, tragedy strikes: “At night the deserts writhed / With diabolical things / Through the night, through the night / The wind lashed and it whipped me / When I got home, my lovely creature / She was no longer with me.” Seemingly absolving himself of blame, the narrator then goes on to explain that somewhere his lovely creature lies buried underneath sand.
Since we’re entirely in the mind of an unreliable narrator, it’s unclear how these events actually unfolded—whether the lovely creature went with the narrator willingly, or whether she was kidnapped. How much of the story is just in this guy’s head? But it seems to be the case that a fit of madness ultimately drove the narrator to kill. Cave alternates between a murmur and a whisper throughout the uncanny melody, guided along by eerie, feminine backup singers who coalesce to render this creepy song irrefutably sexy. And the narrator of “Lovely Creature” is a bit of a romantic, isn’t he? No, no … it’s not healthy to date a guy who lives in his head that much. I can’t be both a girlfriend and a therapist.
“Song Of Joy” is sung from the perspective of the eponymous woman’s husband, who has traveled far away from the place where his family’s grisly murders had taken place. As Joy’s widower is accompanied by a stranger who has taken him in for the night, he imparts the story of the depraved lunatic who did away with his wife and their three daughters. But long before that dreadful night, Joy—a woman whose demeanor had once matched her name—fell into a deep melancholy spurred seemingly at random, as if prescient of her own horrific fate. Joy’s killer has no significant presence in “Song Of Joy,” aside from the way he killed the poor widower’s family, and the calling card he leaves at the scene of his many crimes (quoting John Milton prose in his victims’ blood). Accordingly, he’s a tough guy to get a read on. Not a lot to work with here, but certainly room for improvement. We know that he enjoys the work of 17th century English poet John Milton, so that’s something he could put on his dating profile, at least.
Yes, poor Mary Bellows. She just wanted to get away for a while; see the world, forget all her troubles, visit the ocean for the first time. But she had to pick up Richard Slade on her little road trip, as Cave narrates the short story of the end of her short, unfortunate life. Her encounter with a man named Richard Slade leads Mary to her untimely demise at the hands of this stranger, when she changes her mind and decides to let him into her motel room (the title of the song is, therefore, an ironic one). “Mothers keep your girls at home / Don’t let them journey out alone / Tell them this world is full of danger / And to shun the company of strangers,” Cave intones to finish off the song, offering a compelling argument against dating around whatsoever.
It’s true that I’ve considered the possibility of encountering an axe murderer on Tinder before, but you can’t live your life without a little risk. And Richard Slade, for one, seemed like a perfectly reasonable guy—I mean, he even carried Mary’s suitcase for her. Thus, Mary’s rookie mistake wasn’t undoing the motel room latch and letting Slade in, it was shunning Slade’s initial attempt to enter her room. Mary Bellows didn’t know what she had until it had already killed her.
The man who killed Elisa Day is a close runner-up to being one of the more dateable murderers off Murder Ballads, because everything he does for Elisa is objectively amorous—even the act of killing itself. In the darkly romantic duet between Cave and pop singer Kylie Minogue (sharing a loosely similar plot with the traditional murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden”), Minogue sings from the perspective of a deceased woman named Elisa Day, and Cave from that of her anonymous killer.
Elisa Day’s death was born out of a crime of passion, preceded by a period during which she and her killer fell madly in love. He slowly woos Elisa with kindness and flowers, and then finishes things off with a nice date down by the river. Sounds pretty good to me! If you’re going to end up murdered, wouldn’t you at least want to lead up to it with a few days of pure bliss? Her killer even had the courtesy to get the job done quickly (rock to the dome). Elisa Day met the man of her dreams and literally never knew what hit her.
Murder Ballads’ final track is a tongue-in-cheek denouement—a cover of a Bob Dylan song from his 1988 album Down in the Groove. Cave, accompanied by Shane MacGowan, Anita Lane, and prior Murder Ballads guest singers Harvey and Minogue, subverts the Bad Seeds’ otherwise brutal killing-filled album with Dylan’s song, which urges the listener to not fear death. The lyrics ruminate on life’s many obstacles, feelings of hopelessness and bearing witness to human suffering, while offering the conviction that hope lingers and death does not conclude life. Death isn’t actually a person who you can date, so I would feel wrong placing it and “Death Is Not The End” at number 1 on this list. But, ironically, Death itself is the only truly neutral figure among the parade of freaks and perverts across Murder Ballads, so it does make it onto the podium.
The 15-minute-long epic of “O’Malley’s Bar” is a brutal one. It chronicles a man who, one day, enters a local watering hole, does away with all 12 people inside and gladly gives himself up to the police once the job is done. He splits Jerry Bellows’ head in half, shoots a hole in Kathleen Carpenter, blows Henry Davenport’s bowels out, and crushes the throat of the bar owner’s daughter, Siobhan. The man is ruthless and shows little remorse for his unabated acts of violence—though, he does waver in his convictions more than once. And he occasionally narrates his song as if his task is, for whatever reason, one he feels he has to go through with, as if compelled by some divine intervention. Of course, the most vital pieces of information are conveys at the song’s beginning, as our narrator—the killer—introduces himself to us: “I am tall and I am thin / Of an enviable height / And I’ve been known to be quite handsome / From a certain angle and in a certain light.” I hate to say it but … maybe I could fix him.
The original “Crow Jane” folk song has its roots in the early days of blues. The first known recording took place in 1927 by guitarist Julian Daniels, and it was later recorded by Skip James in 1964. As with “Stagger Lee,” Cave offers his own musical variation on the woman known as Crow Jane, to the point where he effectively makes the song his own. In the obscurely detailed story, one day, Crow Jane is savaged in her home by 20 men, then goes out and gets herself a gun and kills them all as an act of revenge. Thus, Crow Jane indisputably wins as the most dateable murderer of Murder Ballads. She didn’t actually do anything wrong. That’s it! Easy choice! Goodnight!
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Polygon, The Playlist, Consequence, Little White Lies, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford and Watchmen.