Murder ballads and other dark songs

I’ve always enjoyed songs about the darker things. Songs about characters in extremis, pushed to the edge and pushing back. Songs about murder, and killing and weirdness. Nick Cave, Tom Waits, the darker traditional folk songs.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when I started to love songs like that. I’ve always liked heavy metal, which has its fair share of horror songs. As a very young child I liked musicals, and that’s stayed with me, even though a great many musicals suffer from not being Sweeney Todd.

But wherever it started, I like music that’s melodramatic and macabre. Here some inspirations:

Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads

Where the Wild Rose Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue is one of a great many Nick Cave songs I could have picked. The juxtaposition of a pop princess and a raving madman stoving her character’s head in then putting a rose between her teeth works beautifully. What I particularly love about this is that if you were listening with half an ear you could be forgiven for thinking this was a cheesy love song, rather than a murder ballad.

It’s also unforgiving and bleak. Apparently the older, more traditional murder ballad folks songs would contain verses where the murderers get a proper comeuppance. The law, or at least justice, would find them. Not so this song. The tradition changed, particularly over in America and murder ballads just focused on the dastardly doings of the antihero. This Nick Cave song is definitely in that tradition. There is no light. He just kills her. And yet musically it is a straight ahead, simple song.

What’s he building in there?

The same cannot be said of Waits’ What’s He Building in There. That ain’t no normal song. This is character, through and through.

What I love about the video in the link above is the melodrama. It is dark, but the audience are happy to laugh as well. What’s often missing from more experimental stuff on record is the audience reaction. Laughing is okay. If it’s weird, it’s weird.

Waits’ songs aren’t always about murderers, but so many of them are populated with these weird, over the top characters who get up to all sorts of strange things. I know people always focus on the unique character of his voice, and rightly so, but for me what stands out are the protagonists of his songs.

Sweeney Todd

I couldn’t write about the music that has influenced me without mentioning this show. Sweeney Todd has a special place in my dark little heart. I’ve never seen a live show so blood soaked and gleefully, messily, violent. And Sondheim is a genius, isn’t he? The words are genius, the accompaniment grotesque and perfect. And there are moments of real beauty in the melody, but every one of them is undercut with an air of menace.

In short, I like ’em dark.

What about you? What dark, storytelling songs would you add to my list?




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