Nick Cave and the bad seeds – Where The Wild Roses Grow – song analysis

This is one of the song analyses presented in the PDF Songwriting.

Songwriting

Story analysis of the song “Where The Wild Roses Grow” by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds ft Kylie Minogue

This song, a duo featuring Kylie Minogue for who Nick Cave wrote the lyrics, was released on Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds‘ 9th studio album Murder Ballads (Mute Records, 1996).

The song, that lasts 3:57, starts, after a brief violin-based instrumental, by the CHORUS:

“They call me The Wild Rose
But my name was Elisa Day
Why they call me it I do not know
For my name was Elisa Day”

This chorus sung by the sweet, feminine voice of Kylie Minogue, gives us straight away two major plot elements: 1/ the theme, it’s about a woman compared to a rose, and 2/ the Antagonist – even if we do not know yet that she will soon get such a status.

This chorus also stands as the beginning of Act I: exposition.

For the moment, she is the narrator of the story. This will change.

The fact this chorus is written both at present (“they call me”) and past times (“my name was”) plays as a discrete hint of what is going to happen to her.

VERSE 1

“From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one
She stared in my eyes and smiled”

The narrator changes and becomes a man, interpreted by Nick Cave.

This double point of view over the same events will characterize the whole song. It is obviously more interesting to tell the story from two sides rather than only one.

The contrast between Kylie Minogue’s soft, high-pitched voice, and Nick Cave’s deep, bassy, rocky voice, contributes to dramatize the situation and carries something erotic at the same time: female/male.

This first meeting is the catalyst of what will obviously be a love story. From there, we expect to know whether the love story will stand or not: implicitly, it gives us the goal: stay together, or not.

For the moment, the two characters share the same actantial role: they are both Hero, and there is no Antagonist yet.

We can easily recognize the old stereotype of love at first sight. It sounds old-fashioned and cliché, but the song is soon going to treat this theme a more original way.

“For her lips were the color of the roses
That grew down the river, all bloody and wild”

This romantic analogy between the color of her lips and a place down the river where wild roses grow, sounds as a hint of her near death next to such a place, in a rather magical logics.

On the contrary, the adjective “bloody” attributed to the roses, carries something scary, a potential threat that rises the tension up.

“When he knocked on my door and entered the room
My trembling subsided in his sure embrace”

This new change of narrator definitely confirms that the song is a duo in which the points of view are closely intertwined.

In terms of narration time, it is interesting to notice that this song doubles the chronology of actions: each event gets repeated twice, once per each of the characters involved. We could play rewriting two songs, one per character: we then would lose all the tension built by the confrontation and harmony between those points of view.

Even if this plot point was already told by the man, it was a different way. Thus, those lines make us enter the development – Act II – tensed by the implicit dramatic question: will they stay together and be happy?

The very literary, poetic style adds much to the quality of the song, especially in a verse like “My trembling subsided in his sure embrace” in which actions of the characters get somewhat distanciated, which adds to the beauty of the emotions involved.

“He would be my first man, and with a careful hand
He wiped at the tears that ran down my face”

The fact that she is crying will remain unexplained, but as long as we do not know it, it generates a suspense: will we get the explanation?

The mention of his “careful hand” and the tender gesture of wiping the tears, let us think that this man is tender and loving, and establishes a positive pronostic for their love story: since it starts good, it should continue good. As the following will show, this hides a contrary drive. So we can say those elements build up a wrong track: we are here lead to believe true something that will later prove false.

CHORUS

It is repeated without any modification of the lyrics or the music. But is it really the same? NO: each time this chorus comes back, its meaning is slightly different, updated according to the flow of new data.

“On the second day I brought her a flower
She was more beautiful than any woman I’d seen”

The alternance of voices underlines the parallelism of feelings, and mimics the phenomenon of reciprocal attraction.

I said, “Do you know where the wild roses grow
So sweet and scarlet and free?”

Though the intention stays implicit, the man suggests to bring her to this place “where the wild roses grow”. This idea leads us back to his comparison of her as a rose.

This time, the adjectives chosen by the man are not scary. It is another kind of wrong track, calming us down after having frightened us: he sounds normal, whereas very soon he will do something absolutely not normal.

“On the second day he came with a single red rose
Said: “Will you give me your loss and your sorrow?”
I nodded my head, as I lay on the bed
“If I show you the roses, will you follow?”

The fact she is quoting him on one line over two, adds even more to the impression of harmony. They are two voices that melt into one.

CHORUS

The repetition of “they call me The Wild Rose” makes the identification between her and the flower more and more flagrant and literal.

“On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed”

This is the crisis, that is the beginning of the Act III of their love story. They embraced first, then kissed. We are not surprised, since it is the usual development of love stories. This identity between this plot and the ideal, archetypal love plot, paradoxically prepares its total contradiction in the two next lines.

“And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he knelt above me with a rock in his fist”

This is a very surprising, unexpected continuation of the crisis! Instead of loving her, he gets ready to kill her! It confirms that the previous tender and romantic elements had built a wrong track.

Only now the actantial roles become clear: he is the Hero of a murder plot, and she is his Antagonist.

The fact that the murder is not told, but only subtly suggested, adds to the emotion. The suggestion works in two steps: 1/ the words “the last thing I heard” imply that there were no more words after them, and allow us to deduce that only death can cause such a result; 2/the quasi-cinematographic vision of the murderer stuck for a moment in a position of imminent agression “with a rock in his fist” above his victim.

“On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow
And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief
And I kissed her goodbye, said “All beauty must die”
And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth”

Climax: the murder that was only alluded to in the previous strophe told by her, becomes clear and direct in this strophe by him.

CHORUS

Now, we know why the people call her “The Wild Rose”, and why this chorus is written in both present and past times. The revelation of the previously untold key-elements gets completed.

Commentary

The art of lie and secret psychology

What is particularly remarkable in this song is the way it tells a murder story while romanticizing it all along.

A masterwork of euphemism, the lyrics succeed in hiding the truth of the incredible ending (that is obviously known from the storyteller and probably the male Hero since the very beginning) until the very last verses. This spectacular effect of distribution of information helps upsetting the audience in the conclusion, whereas we were expecting a very different one – marriage?

As we noticed in Story&Drama level 1 – Essentials, telling a story an efficient way often consists in lying to the audience rather than in informing the people honestly.

In the case of this song, when we re-read or re-hear it, we can notice that the end was potential since the very beginning, but could not be understood since the real personality of the murderer was not yet revealed: indeed, when he says “from the first day I saw her I knew she was the one”, this sentence is totally true, but not in the first meaning of it: we have to complete it, he knew she was the one HE WOULD LOVE TO KILL! Same process when he proposes her to go to the place “where the wild roses grow”: we are lead to believe, because it sounds normal in a poem or a love song, that he wants to lead her there to have a beautiful moment with her, whereas what he really plans is to kill her. When we finally discover his real intentions, we are very surprised, but the story stays consistant and logic, we just have to update it and re-interpret it by taking account of the fact that he is not a real lover, but a criminal dandy of love, an aesthete of romantic murder.

To make it even more obvious, imagine that we would rewrite all the song, not changing any of its plot points and structure, but just modifying one element: we would say, from the first verses, that the man is a murderer. Can you feel the effect? It would destroy all the suspense and beauty of the lyrics.

So let’s remember that as a fundamental, general lesson: if we want to have a strong impact over our audience, we have to learn lying to them, not to be honest, not to be too clear.

The rose-woman – a symbolic sexist murder

From the first chorus, repeated three other times, and from the many repetitions of the theme of the rose (the terms “rose(s)” and “flower” are used 9 times!), a very intense identification is created between the woman and the rose. This metaphor is a cliché of poetry since the beginning of literature, from antiquity to now.

But, what if we really do pay attention to this pseudo-innocent and pseudo-poetic metaphor, what if we try to analyze it and ask ourselves the question: is it so nice to women? We think that on the contrary, such an image carries much, far too much sexism, because: a rose is a flower, a flower is a plant, and a plant has no free will. In reality, human beings, whatever their gender, have very few in common with plants. Identifying a woman to a plant is symbolically the beginning of a murder, because we do not see how a flower could have the right to vote, or work and be financially independent, or rule countries, or be equal to men in general. Imagine that, since 2500 years, we would compare men to mushrooms, or treat men as bushes: would men like that? Would women respect men for being mushrooms or bushes? Certainly not!

Flowers have one poetical quality: their beauty. Even this is a cliché, because many flowers are just ugly, and some of them stink or behave as predators, – the carnivorous ones. Focusing on women’s beauty and comparing them to beautiful flowers contributes – unconsciously, secretly, but really! – to reduce them to a status of nice sexual object, not even having a sexual autonomy, as if women were made to be admired. And… what about ugly or not-so-beautiful women, are they not worthy women because they do not look as nice as roses? Do women demand to men to be handsome mushrooms, admirable bushes?

Actually, the insistence of culture to treat women as beautiful but passive objects, is rather ugly in itself.

And this song is a monument of pure sexism, the woman is just subjected to each action after the other, without never clearly be in position to express a free will:

  • she is a virgin (“he would be my first man”; whereas of course, the male character is supposed to be an experimented lover…)
  • she cries (the old cliché of the too-emotional, fragile, vulnerable women, which was very often used as an argument to stop women from being acknowledged as free citizens with the right to vote and to rule)
  • she is in need for tenderness (“My trembling subsided in his sure embrace”: what if we rewrite that “HIS trembling subsided in HER sure embrace”? )
  • she nods (which means she can just accept the man’s proposition, but not have her own projects)
  • she is taken to a place (“he took me to the river” / “I took her to the river”)
  • she is shown the roses (“he showed me the roses”: is she supposed to be unable to watch them just by herself? does she need to be showed the world as if she was a child?)
  • she is finally killed… (but did she really live a life of her own, independently from men’s watch?)
  • and decorated with a rose between her teeth – ah, the beautiful corpse floating on the river…

So, to conclude this analysis: please, do not misinterpret our intentions here, we do NOT mean that because the song is sexist, it is a bad song.

We enjoy it and find it very beautiful: emotionally, aesthetically and technically, it works very well. We think that Nick Cave is a master songwriter, worth being studied.

But, as we stated it in the fundamental Story&Drama tutorials, storytelling is NOT an innocent tool to make interesting artworks, it is an ideological weapon, and the pretendedly most innocent poem written by an idealistic teenager also stands as a virtual bomb, to confirm, support, enhance, valorize, challenge, contradict, fight (etc…) some ideas, themes, attitudes, values, pieces of knowledge.
Never pretend being neutral, innocent or objective, because it is absolutely impossible: as soon as you tell (or teach 🙂 ) something, you get committed for or against all of the aspects of life on earth, – for or against violence towards women, for example. In Where The Wild Roses Grow, Nick Cave, the Bad Seeds, and Kylie Minogue, take position in favor of sexism.

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