In the Feb '09 issue, Uncut magazine featured a CD compilation of murder ballads & prison songs, appropriately featuring Johnny Cash on the cover. I am quite fond of theme based compilations and rather enjoyed this one, which features a diverse range of new and older songs about various hapless souls imprisoned for one reason or another.
For me the murder ballads are quite compelling. A good murder ballad provides an engaging narrative that is usually told from the perspective of the killer and often ends with some sort of consequence for him or her in the form of the gallows or some other ghastly ending, complete with a sense of overwhelming remorse (in most cases).
This is different of course from other more nihilistic forms of music where violent imagery is utilized for shock value or to push some misguided image of hyper-masculinity. Think of a murder ballad as the musical equivalent Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart wrapped up in a 3 minute song with country and folk motifs.
The most compelling part for me is the psychological state of the killer, who is either haunted or filled with remorse over his deed, which in some cases may be accidental. Containing this within a short song provides an immediate visceral experience where powerful narrative is enhanced by the immediacy of a well crafted melody. A perfect combination indeed for the literary minded pop connoisseur.
Here are a few standouts that I am enjoying currently (complete with limited duration download links);
"The Rake's Song" (2009)- The Decemberists - This song reflects the mastery that The Decemberists embody around weaving a compelling narrative within an immediately gratifying hook-laden pop song. In this macabre tale the protagonist murders his unwanted children after their mother dies during child birth - with cold calculation he indicates that "my burden I began to divest".
"Delia's Gone" (1994) - Johnny Cash - Interestingly, the first song of Cash's series of "American Recordings" with Rick Rubin at the helm starts with a classic murder ballad. In this case Delia is described as "low down and trifling, and she was mean". Cash sings with a tinge of tenderness and a matter of fact honesty, making it all that more chilling.
"Where The Wild Roses Grow" (1996) - Nick Cave (featuring Kylie Minogue) - A sweet duet with a touch of fatalism, where Cave and Minogue exchange vocals about Elisa Day and the unnamed man who enraptured with her beauty later pronounces that "all beauty must die", placing a red rose between her teeth. Apparently this song was inspired by "The Willow Garden", a tale of a man courting a woman and killing her while they are out together.
"Pretty Polly" - recorded by various artists (link to free MP3 download by artist Daniel Dutton); This traditional folk song tells the tale of a ship's carpenter who murders poor Polly and places her in a shallow grave. In some versions he is later haunted by her ghost and goes utterly mad while at sea, ultimately ending his own life. Interestingly, writer Greil Marcus has theorized that the song "Polly" by Nirvana is derivative of this tale.
If anyone is interested, I am in the process of compiling a great murder ballad compilation, so send me an e-mail and I can hook you up with a great mix of macabre tales to murder your eardrums!