In some ways, Murder Ballads is the record Nick Cave was waiting to make his entire career. Death and violence have always haunted his music, even when he wasn't explicitly singing about the subject. On Murder Ballads, he sings about nothing but death in the most gruesome, shocking fashion. Divided between originals and covers, the record is awash in both morbid humor and sobering horror, as the Bad Seeds provide an appropriate backdrop for the carnage, alternating between blues, country, and lounge-jazz. Opening the affair is "Song for Joy," a tale from a father who has witnessed his family's death at the hands of serial killer. It is the most disturbing number on the record, lacking any of the gallows humor that balances out the other songs. Cave's duets with Kylie Minogue ("Where the Wild Roses Grow") and PJ Harvey ("Henry Lee") are intriguing, but the true tours de force of the album are "Stagger Lee" and "O'Malley's Bar." Working from an obscure, vulgar variation on "Stagger Lee," Cave increases the sordidness of the song, making Stagger an utterly irredeemable character. The original "O'Malley's Bar" is even stronger, as he spins a bizarrely funny epic of one man's slaughter of an entire bar. During "O'Malley's Bar," Cave and the Bad Seeds are at the height of their powers and the performances rank among the best they have ever recorded.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine