I remember the first time I heard a modern murder ballad. Being raised on a fairly steady diet of classic country growing up, I was entirely familiar with songs that dealt with death at a young age and by second grade, I was telling pals that I’d shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a proclamation which none of my peers found as funny as I did. When I developed my own musical taste, murder ballads fell off my radar as tunes dealing with matters of the heart became more prevalent in my life. Then I discovered Okkervil River.
I have a ridiculous, intense love for Will Sheff and his band of Austinites. It’s the type of love that affects my life on a daily basis, a love so intense that I’ve been known to present my friends with Okkervil River mix cds whilst wearing my Okkervil River hoodie as part of my constant championing of the band. I listen to Okkervil River every day and my face lights up like a child’s when they’re mentioned in passing by one of my friends. I even slip vague references to the band’s lyrics into every day conversation. Given these facts, it’s strange for me to think that a time existed not all that many years ago when I hadn’t so much as heard the band but it’s true: In 2004, I had nary a clue what or where Okkervil River was and the name Will Sheff meant nothing to me. Upon the release of the band’s triumphant Black Sheep Boy album, that changed and I subsequently immersed myself in the band’s back catalog, including the album Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See. On a whole, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See was not as immediately hook-laden as the albums that followed it in Okkervil River’s discography and while the disc has grown very near and dear to my heart in very many ways, I wasn’t as impressed upon my first listen of the disc as I was with Black Sheep Boy. That is, however, until “Westfall”. “Westfall”, the fifth track on Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, starts with hushed guitar and gentle mandolin. When Sheff’s vocals come in, they’re more composed and subdued than we’ve previously heard on tracks like “Lady Liberty” and “For Real”, where Sheff’s unhinged quality takes a featured spot to create the band’s urgent sound. So, when Sheff explains, as the true nature of the song begins to make itself audible, “When I killer her, it was so easy that I wanted to kill her again”, it’s so shocking that it’s enough to affect you physically. The first time I heard “Westfall”, the realism of Sheff’s storytelling had me rapt with attentiveness and, when the song climaxes with Sheff’s admission of murder, a wave of nausea overtook me. I’d never heard anything as shockingly affecting as “Westfall” before. And, thus, I began my love affair with modern murder ballads.
Westfall – Okkervil River
But what is it about songs about killing that I’ve taken such a shine to? I’ve never killed anyone and I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the majority of people who love murder ballads as much as I do haven’t either. In fact, I’m so sensitive to matters of life and death that I once cried when I killed a moth (Laughable but true). I can’t even imagine a scenario in which I would kill someone, even in a matter of life and death, as the prospect of murder is so frightening to me. I’m haunted enough by events in my past and less than respectable things that I’ve done. To add taking a human life to that list sounds nightmarish. So why is it that nothing enthralls me as much as Will Sheff luring an innocent co-ed into a forest and bludgeoning her to death? I feel as if this all comes down to morals. Murder ballads, as a subgenre of music (folk in particular), deal with subject matter that few other songs touch on. They let people examine the inherit morality (or lack thereof) in human beings. Most everything in life comes down to a question about one of three things: Love, God, and morality. I found David Bazan‘s harrowing loss of faith album, Curse Your Branches, a remarkably interesting take on “breaking up with God” and The Good Life‘s heartbreakingly honest Album of The Year forced me to take a hard look at the damage I was doing to my then-boyfriend in the relationship I was in when it came out. When the power of music is exploited in it’s entirety, it makes the listener examine their own life, and the morality touched upon in murder ballad is no exception to this. Chances are you’ll never kill anyone but through songs like “Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists, you start to understand a fraction of the terror you might feel were the situation to ever arise and The Decemberists and Okkervil River aren’t the only bands taking the kitsch out of murder ballads.
Songs that deal with death are many, but most don’t examine the soul shattering event of actually taking a life. That’s what differentiates a “song about death” from a “murder ballad”. While John Vanderslice‘s “I’ll Never Live Up To You” tackles living with loss, the death in the song wasn’t at the hands of the tune’s narrator. San-Fran-by-way-of-Texas duo Agent Ribbons have a habit of tackling macabre subject matter more often than not but this is always done so in a tongue-in-cheek (and surprisingly seductive) manner and is never played for chills. Songs about morbid subject matter litter aren’t rare but instead of dealing with “morality”, these songs seem to deal with “mortality”. Interesting, yes, but not nearly as compelling as lyrics like “Climb into my arms with blood on your clothes” (Okkervil River’s “A Glow”).
Murder ballads pepper the modern indie scene with The Decemberists trying their hand at slaughtering the innocent on a number of their tracks, perhaps most notably on The Hazards of Love‘s main single, “The Rake’s Song”. “The Rake’s Song” finds Colin Meloy committing infanticide until he’s “living so easy and free” and confessing that, despite the fact that he’s poisoned and drowned his own children, he sleeps remarkably easy at night. Canada’s Timber Timbre have built their entire career on ghost stories and homicide, as evident on the band’s latest, self titled release, an album that touches on such bone chilling topics as grave robbing and necrophilia (“Lay Down In The Tall Grass”) and the electric chair (“We’ll Find Out”). The fact that Timber Timbre‘s dark subject matter is chased with a macabre romanticism makes the sexually deviant behavior Taylor Kirk mentions in passing have a strange allure to it that doesn’t exactly seem wrong. Arizona folk punk duwo Andrew Jackson Jihad‘s People Who Eat People Are The Luckiest People features “Bad, Bad Things”, a track that finds songwriter Sean Bonette brutally killing an entire family and surmising the events in the songs closing lines: “If I don’t go to hell when I die, I might go to heaven… But probably not.”
Perhaps the most remarkable modern murder ballad this side of “Westfall” is Fronteir Ruckus‘s brilliant “The Back-Lot World”, off the Michigan band’s full length debut, The Orion Songbook, sets it tone early on with the spooky quaver of a saw, coupled with the ungapping prose of Matt Milia’s lyrics, sung with a hushed manner that’s vaguely reminiscent of a sinner in a confessional, admitting their wrong-doings. By the time that Milia reveals “I killed a woman, she had it comin'”, you understand the gravity of the scenes that Milia has described earlier, from the “cooling rain clouds coming” to the “ghost-filled brimming field” that serve as an aching grey background for the mundane beauty of Milia’s storytelling.
Murder ballads in modern music are nothing new, per se. It’s not a budding trend like “lit rock” was a few years back or “chillwave” was in ’09. I don’t expect Pitchfork or Hipster Runoff to write about murder ballads because the fact of the matter is that murder ballads never went anywhere. From their inception in 1700’s English folk songs to “goth rock” artists like Rasputina, murder has always been a subject matter touched upon for dramatic storytelling. The way murder ballads are being tackled now, however, in the modern indie scene, is something different that I’ve taken quite a shine to. When I listen to music, I want to be affected. I want to feel something. For me, love songs are old hat, something I feel like I’ve heard before. Plus, I’ve loved and I’ve lost. But I’ve never killed a man. Hearing a song sung by a narrator that has, however, opens up my mind to horrific new possibilities that it may never think of without prodding. The low stakes involved when discussing heartbreak have dissipated in murder ballads. People recovering from heartache. More compelling are the risks involved when it comes to ending a life and the dramatics of this are darkly fascinating. When Meloy sings that the titular Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you, they used to be sweet little boys, but something went horribly askew: Now killing is their only source of joy” and Sheff kills his ex-girlfriend’s new lover in “A Glow”, the unearthly allure of murder ballads is fantastically palpable.