For me, Kylie Minogue has made no greater contribution to music than with her death. This is not proposed derisively; for the hit machine she proved herself to be through much of this decade, I cannot deny her a certain deserved acclaim. My argument is that no artistic endeavour she has made up until this point, including her nuanced performances in both Neighbours and Street Fighter: The Movie, will ever resonate as deeply as her dulcet death rattle at the hands of Nick Cave.
From the fragrant production to his choice of victim, ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ is an exemplary addition to one of my favourite canons, the murder ballad. Whether killer or victim, Cave knew how to execute the tradition faultlessly. His Murder Ballads album is, for me, his most enduring work; not because of its production values, its diversity of styles, or the intimidating roster of guest artists, but because of its sheer body count. This is the sonic equivalent of a slasher flick, but crafted with infinitely more care.
My dad first introduced me to the genre by pointing to The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm, that cautionary yet funky tale warning against picking up hitchhikers — a practice he routinely engaged in with me in the car after the telling, to my distress. This was a revelation. Until then I had found it hard to accept the fact that all anybody ever seemed to sing about was love; As a seven-year-old boy this was, understandably, of little interest to me. Perhaps as a sign of the desensitising times, the only act of passion that gave me a thrill was frenzied murder. This song combined two of my favourite emerging interests at that age, the macabre and the musical.
As much as I love a good slaughter through song, a problem for me in more recent times has been the perceived indivisibility between the artist and their art. Eminem’s ‘97 Bonnie and Clyde’ is inventive, engaging and horrifying, but just a little too grounded in truth for comfort. Rather than slasher flick, this almost veers into snuff. Sitting easier with me is Tori Amos’ completely inverted cover, claiming the voice of victim rather than villain and, crucially, acting instead of ranting.
The murder ballad should be an exercise in theatricality. Lovers, siblings, children; no-one is safe in these accounts of jealousy and jilting, revenge and repression. As studies of deeply flawed humans, they let you confront the tragic without experiencing it, in the way horror films allow us the same. The fun of murder ballads is in the sense of costume. Everybody knows the bad guys have the best lines; it only becomes too disturbing when you think they might actually mean them.
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