Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “The Carny” — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1986)

And the rain came hammering down
Everybody running for their wagons
Tying all the canvas flaps down
The mangy cats growling in their cages
The bird-girl flapping and squawking around
The whole valley reeking of wet beast
Wet beast and rotten, sodden hay
Freak and brute creation
Packed up and on their way…

You know, before I started putting together Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. And yet here we are, having become quite the fanboys. In 2014 we featured Red Right Hand and then returned in 2017 with Henry Lee, the latter of which was a collaboration with P.J. Harvey (who herself was featured the following year with Down By The Water).

So apparently this is an tri-annual thing, because now in 2020 here we are with The Carny, an evocatively atmospheric snapshot of a traveling carnival and its assorted collection of freaks and misfits. One of their own is missing, and presumed to be dead. But no one’s talking.

As evidenced by so many of these types of songs, there is a creepy, minor-key calliope melody woven throughout every last verse. The waltzing rhythm from the underlying piano is complemented by a Haunted House organ, as skeletal-dancing xylophones and glockenspiels taunt us at every corner. Even an organ-grinding concertina-like cry permeates this tale, like a constant wail of deepest sorrow never lets us out of its grasp.

And then Nick Cave himself assails us with a terrifying sprechstimme, the collective conscience of the carnival, preaching and wailing and caterwauling. The scene he paints is this: a member of a carnival troupe (the eponymous Carny) is missing. His caravan is still on the hill, but the Carny nowhere to be found. His horse Sorrow is found, apparently dying or extremely malnourished. Bellini, the circus boss, shoots the poor nag, and the dwarves bury it in a shallow grave.

The rain begins to fall, hammering down. The dwarves remark that they should have made the grave deeper, implying their knowledge of, or involvement with, the Carny’s fate. The strongman also might know something. All the various freaks scatter to their wagons as the rain deluges the carnival, and they eventually depart, leaving nothing behind but the stench of wet animals and rotten, and the Carny’s abandoned van.

With the carnival long gone, the rain stops, and Sorrow’s body rises to the surface… only to be consumed by a murder of crows. All the while, the Carny’s van silently remains perched on the hill, threatening to slide downward as the wet earth threatens to give way.

Damn, what an insanely creepy tune. The Carny paints a most exquisite scene of guilt, murder, implications, secrets, and shadows. Sorrow consumed by murder as the victim remained behind, unmoved in memory by those who know what was done. And the calliope music plays on in the distance.

And the Carny’s van still sat upon the edge
Tilting slowly as the firm ground turned to sludge
And the rain it hammered down
And no-one saw the Carny go
No-one saw the Carny go
No-one saw the Carny go
I say, it’s funny how things go…

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