It’s time again for another one of my lyric analysis posts. This time I’ll be looking at the haunting murder ballad ‘Where the Wild Roses Grow’ from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, also featuring the prominent vocals of pop superstar Kylie Minogue. This song was one of those unlikely collaborations that came off really well and creating something memorably dark as two voices narrate a brief courtship that ended in death. To this day, the song remains a strange piece of music that has a sense of Gothic romanticism to it.
‘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’.
These opening lines are the chorus to the song and they put the listener into a haunted mood. The melancholy tone of her voice shows that she is narrating from beyond the grave as a ghost. She seems to be aware of her death, but unsure of why she is known as The Wild Rose. This will later be explained in later lyrics.
‘From the first day I saw her I knew she was the one/ She stared in my eyes and smiled’.
It is love at first sight for this man as he seems utterly besotted with her from first glance. Yet his vocal delivery suggests the darkness that is to come.
‘For her lips were the colour of the roses/ That grew down the river, all bloody and wild’.
He speaks of how beautiful she is and highlights the main feature of her lips. Yet while comparing her to the roses seems very romantic, the mention of them being ‘bloody and wild’ is a big example of foreshadowing her doomed fate at the hands of this man.
‘When he knocked on my door and entered the room/ My trembling subsided in his sure embrace’.
She feels comfortable with him as her fears melt away. She doesn’t realise what will eventually become of her at this point and sings lovingly of his gentle demeanor that calms her. The presence of a bell ringing as she begins to sing foreshadows the fact that she is not of this world anymore and a ghost.
‘He would be my first man, and with a careful hand/ He wiped at the tears that ran down my face’.
The mention of the first gives the impression that she is virginal and not at all used to romantic love. Like with the last lines, she is under something of an illusion as he seems to be the perfect man comforting her. There is an innocence to these lines as he is the first man in her life and will be the last tragically.
The melancholy chorus is sung again, as the sound of the music intensifies and the lead up to the tragic murder looms nearer.
‘On the second day I brought her a flower/ She’s more beautiful than any woman I’ve seen’.
He brings her a flower as a present in the custom of old-fashioned courting. He is now completely overtaken by his passion for her. The fact that he compares her to a flower and also brings her own ties the two together.
‘I said, “Do you know where the wild roses grow/
So sweet and scarlet and free?”
Here he asks her if she is aware of the roses on the riverbank were he will eventually kill her. The words he describes the roses as are ultimately what she will become as she will be free of life and scarlet will be the colour of her blood. Lines like this make me believe that the reason he kills her is because of her beauty and how he wanted it for himself, and no one else. By killing her, she was still his.
‘On the second day he came with a single red rose/ Said: “Will you give me your loss and your sorrow”.
We now go back to her recollection of the events that paint a more romantic picture of what transpired. She remembers the rose that he brought her( that probably gives an indication of why she became known in death as the Wild Rose) and how his words seemed reassuring and not threatening, when in reality the truth of his intentions was darker.
‘I nodded my head, as I lay on the bed/ “If I show you the roses will you follow?”
Her innocence is once again highlighted here as she has no idea of what will happen when she comes across the roses. She remembers him asking her to follow, and she becomes the sacrificial lamb in the end as he leads her to death. Her innocence is what makes her nod her head to his question as she is in love with him, but unaware of what will become of her.
The sadness and darkness once again build with the second rendering of the ghoulish chorus, sung by her.
‘On the third day he took me to the river/ He showed me the roses and we kissed’
This is the day of the murder and she sets up the scene vividly. Even at this point her somewhat naive personality shines as she admires the roses and the soft kiss he gave her. The kiss can also be read as the kiss of death rather than something romantic that it seems to be for her as she unwittingly heads towards her fate.
‘And the last thing I heard was a muttered word/ As he knelt above me with a rock in his fist’.
Her last memory is the one of her death at the hands of her beloved. She was too in love with him to remember the word he muttered. The mention that he knelt above her portrays him as a predator and the fact that she doesn’t see what happens highlights the tragedy. He is almost giving her back to nature as he does describe her throughout the song as like a flower. The roses become her deathbed that she haunts.
‘On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow/ And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief’.
Now for the last time, we hear the man’s perspective as he kills her. He paints a haunting image of her dead on the bank with the wind gently blowing her way. Even in death, she is beautiful to him and this is the main reason he murdered her, so her beauty wouldn’t belong to anyone else.
‘And I kissed her goodbye, said “All beauty must die”/ And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth’.
He says goodbye to her in a romantic way that is very dark as she is now dead because of him. The muttered words that she spoke of earlier are probably the words he utters here, backing up the idea that he murdered her because of his obsession with not allowing anyone to gaze upon her beauty. The planting of the rose between her teeth makes her at one with nature and paints a very ghostly image. Although he killed her because of her beauty, he leaves the rose as a way to remember her.
The last chorus is given haunting edge by the fact that she repeats the last lines three times, still unsure of why she is known by a name that wasn’t hers. These last deliveries of the lines make me believe that she is now a spectre floating on the riverbank where she was killed, consumed by melancholy questions over her demise.