In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, we’re picking our favorite less-popular songs from 1994.
I am afraid of looking like a tourist. It’s a stupid, vain concern, I’ll admit. But when you grow up around New York City, there’s a disapproval of those touristy behaviors that rubs off on you. Tourists are something to be avoided at all costs, gracefully dodged and eye-rolled at as they halt in the middle of foot traffic to try and capture the grandeur of a 1,000-foot-tall hunk of concrete and steel with a PowerShot. It’s a cold, judgmental outlook, but darn it, I’m trying to walk here. Nick Cave might not have had touristophobia on the brain while penning “Jangling Jack,” but it certainly comes off that way. And our shared annoyance with these petty inconveniences makes this comic tale of murder in cold blood not just funnier but also alarmingly cathartic.
Sandwiched between two mammoth tracks—“Loverman” and “Red Right Hand”—on Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ terrific 1994 album Let Love In, “Jangling Jack” tells the story of a chipper foreigner taking an ill-fated trip to the U.S. The tourist arrives in what I’ve always assumed is New York (he does hail a “fat yellow cab,” after all) and he’s exactly the kind of person you dread seeing on the sidewalk or, more accurately to the matter at hand, in a bar after a rough day. Wide-eyed and wandering around singing “do da do,” Jack ends up at a place called the Rinky Dink where he orders the bar’s specialty and—in a stereotypical act of supreme tastelessness—asks for a little umbrella in it. As if the singing and the defilement of this bar’s specialty weren’t enough to get every misanthrope in this place hating him, Jack locks eyes with a grinning stranger and makes a toast to this country and everyone in it. And then, done putting up with Jangling Jack’s infuriating enthusiasm, the stranger stands up and puts a bullet in him.
Now, when you get down to it, “Jangling Jack” is just as dark and awful as any of the dozens of other murder tales Cave has dreamed up. This poor guy was just trying to have himself a grand ol’ time in New York City, and where does his optimism and friendliness get him? An early death in some dirty dive. Cave, though, makes Jack as unlikeable as possible. There’s malice in even the tiniest of lyrical details, like the way Jack doesn’t sit but “flops on his stool.” And as horrible as it sounds, hearing about that wicked man offing jack cracks me up every time. It’s so abrupt and cartoonish, and Cave narrates the event with an absurd demonic rasp. In the end, it appears as if Cave might give Jack a dignified death as the bloody man crawls his way back to his seat. Instead, Cave delivers a devastating punch line. Jack “falls back down on his ass,” doubles over, vomits, and dies. Vomits and dies? That’s just mean, Nick Cave, but at least Jangling Jack won’t be bugging anyone who’s just trying to go about their day anymore.