The tradition of the murder ballad goes back a long way in music -- Nick Cave did a chilling album of them if you need a primer -- for the same reason we read novels about murder all the time: Violent death is about the most dramatic thing that can happen to a person. Having to depict a murder through words and music alone presents a particularly interesting challenge to songwriters. Do you reference it through the lyrics alone? Sample some gunshots? Throw in a scream? Or do you just find a way to use music to imply a violent act taking place?
That last method was used by singer-songwriter David Bazan on "Second Best," the climax of his Pedro the Lion concept album Control, which he performed in full for a sold-out Independent last night. In the barest outline of plot, Control tells the story of a businessman who has an affair and gets murdered by his wife. The end of "Second Best" is the climax of the story, where -- at least in our interpretation -- the wife actually stabs her husband. But there's no mention of any killing in "Second Best," only in the lyrics to the songs that come before and after. Instead, the song makes its murderous action clear musically.
There's some debate about whose perspective "Second Best" is sung from -- the wife's, or the husband's. You could read lines like "the impact, the aftershave, the European cigarettes/ the taxi, the alcohol that lingers on your breath" as the wife seeing details of her husband's affair, or the husband recounting the ugly little realities of being with his mistress. The second verse of the song does seem to be from the husband's perspective, recalling how "the mattress creaks" and "we lie jerking back and forth/ and blurring into one." But the notion of being second best is what's fueling the wife's anger here -- in the previous song, she's confronted her husband about the affair and strongly hinted that a reckoning will come.
So it does: About four-and-a-half minutes in, as the music builds, Bazan moans a final "What's wrong with second best," holding out the note for emphasis. And then begins a long series of steady, pounding guitar chords blurred in agonized, heavy distortion -- evoking, as we hear it, the wife stabbing the knife fatally into her husband. Last night at the Independent, Bazan's guitar sounded even more seething and fierce than on the album. The presence of the live drums gave each hit a greater heft. The downward slaying continued for almost a minute, and ended with a crash of cymbals and a long, feedback-y fade-out before Bazan and his band transitioned into the next song, which brings the denouement of the story: paramedics come, the husband dies, and the priest offers a less-than-satisfying eulogy at the funeral.
There are lots of ways to make a murder happen in a song. But we'd argue that the lack of explicit mention of the stabbing in "Second Best" -- and the general ambiguity of who's speaking in it and when -- makes this one especially powerful. The details in the verses portray his affair in an awfully unseemly light, and the choruses slowly acquaint us with the wife's pain at being second best in the eyes of her husband. Her thoughts carry us seamlessly into the pounding of the climax, making the murder understandable when it arrives. When Bazan ended this song last night at the Indy, we had chills.