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Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Ah, Nick Cave

Here's a link to one of my favourite songs: Where the Wild Roses Grow. Mostly I like it for its hypnotic rhythm and pretty harmonies, but there's also something interesting about the contrast between the song and the video, if you're interested in ballads. (Which I am, and therefore, for the duration of this post, so are you. If not, well, sorry; you can go play Tetris here instead.)

Traditional ballads have a structure you don't often see in modern verse: a stark, montage style, that presents the bare facts without comment or condolence, leaving the reader to make the leaps of understanding and to deal with the bleak story as well as they can. Very often, there's a sting in the tail: take the famous ballad Edward, Edward. We know from the refrain ('Edward, Edward'/'Mither, mither') that a young man is being questioned by his mother: we move from the facts - he is sadly carrying a bloodstained sword - to his excuses - he claims to have killed his hawk or his horse, neither of which she believes - to the awful truth: he's killed his father. Now he can do nothing but abandon his family and wander the world - and there's a twist in the tale: he curses his mother-questioner, as it was her 'counsels' that led him to do the deed. Or, to take another example: Fine Flowers in the Valley (this site includes the pretty tune for it). A woman bears a child, kills it for unknown reasons, sees a child in the Church porch and thinks she'd treat it well if it were her own, only to find that it is a vision - the ghost of her own child? The infant Christ, as in the Gospel of Matthew's 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'? A conscience-stricken or sentimental hallucination? We don't know. We have to work it out, and possibly we can't. That's the horror of ballads: they don't explain themselves. They tell you the bare bones of a happening, and you have to pick them over as well as you can. Traditional ballads aren't so much like hearing a true crime story as they are like stumbling over a body as you walk through the fields.

Modern ballads often don't do that. They tell you the horror quickly: we're hanging Danny Deever in the morning. Often they give the sense of narrating the story as it's happening, a vivid, novelistic device, as in Danny Deever, or James Fenton's outstanding ballads such as 'Out of the East', or they can be narrating post facto - Blake Morrison's 'Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper' is a fine example - but there are seldom suprises in store. The theme in many modern ballads - not all, of course, but in lots - is closer to tragic inevitability, and motive is sometimes clear, sometimes half-clear, but seldom utterly dark, as with the traditional ballads.

Enter Nick Cave. 'Where the Wild Roses Grow' is a strikingly traditional ballad. The story is narrated in two voices with no description, it returns to a refrain, the story is simple, bloody and bleak, and we have no idea why it happened. And if you just listen to it on a CD, the structure is also traditional. We don't know he killed her till the last stanza. We're perhaps a few seconds ahead of the grim climax when we hear Kylie before Nick, having heard Nick before Kylie in the first two verses - but the end is balladically sudden and stark.

And yet, curiously, when we get to the video, the shift is to modern storytelling. The first thing we see are a corpse and bloodstained hands. Danny Deever is swinging overhead: suddenly we're hearing a story narrated with the conclusion already tragically clear. It's notable that Cave doesn't always do this: the equally pretty murder ballad Henry Lee shows him and P.J. Harvey simply sitting side by side, letting the words and music do the narrative with no pictures to help.

Reasons for this may be as simple as the fact that Kylie Minogue looks very pretty in a wet dress - though P.J. Harvey looks pretty in the water as well - or the desire to stage a more dramatic video, in which case the simplest way of keeping the motivations of the characters obscure is to only film after the fictional event has already taken place (if you show them during the story the ballad tells, inevitably the settings and performances will start to fill in details). I have the strong conviction that the reasons were practical rather than theoretical, as that's generally the way in art, but still, it's interesting to see the contrast between ancient and modern in the same song.

(Nick Cave also once picked a short story of mine for inclusion in an anthology, cementing my liking for the man. Go Nick Cave!)

*Nick Cave love*

I wonder how much involvement he had with the video? I always think, as good a video as it is, it's an odd one. Not really catering to Nick Cave fans as it involves Kylie, bless her, but not really catering to Kylie fans as it's so gothic and bleak.
I remember having a particularly irrational thought: "How can she sign if she's supposedly dead?" Me no smart ;-)

Have a lovely day! :-)
Wow, that is a beautiful song and I am now addicted to it. Thank you! Do you have any recommendations of similar songs (so I don't drive my boyfriend up the wall playing the same song over and over)?
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