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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. 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."
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 humor, 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. 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 MTV even nominated Nick Cave for their “Best Male Artist” award that year; but the nomination was withdrawn at Cave’s personal request.