When I was a kid, my dad played me Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 LP Alice’s Restaurant and I was hooked. Back then I had genuinely no idea you could use a song to tell a story, thinking lyrics were all confessional, first-person and largely abstract. I blame too much Joni Mitchell.
I’ve loved songs that tell stories ever since, and this week I’ve found myself returning to my fave example of a macabre subset of narrative song-writing, the murder ballad. Ladies and gents – I give you Blitzen Trapper’s Black River Killer. It’s a tale that begins in LA and features a victim whose (spoiler alert!) ‘mouth was sewn shut but eyes were still wide.’ Of course our sorry narrator gets thrown in jail for the crime, and stares at the graffiti on his jail-cell wall wondering whether he'd rather shuffle off this mortal coil than remain incarcerated.
Then the warden shells out ‘five dollars and a second-hand suit’ and lets our singer go. Bad move, lawman - two more killings follow, both brutal and remorseless before, in a sinister final scene, our murderer takes a bath and a shave in the Black River, and, portentously, sharpens his knife.
Pretty nasty, huh?