Twenty Years Later – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call

by: Patrick J Dalton

Twenty years after its release, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call still never fails to pleasantly surprise, and to traumatize its listeners…

boatmans call

“Who are we getting this time?” It’s the sort of question one might ask of an emotionally unstable lover after a brief gap between arguments. But it’s also a question I’ve internally pondered preceding the first listen to every release that spans Nick Cave’s thirty-three year musical career. One of the most erratic and poetically irreverent performers of our time, who has never released two recordings of similar musical resemblances, Nick Cave has never failed to pleasantly surprise and traumatize the listener.

March 3rd, 1997 was no different, as Nick Cave’s tenth release, The Boatman’s Call, graced New Release shelves in record stores nationwide. The availability of Cave’s latest album coincided four months to the day with a crippling personal tragedy that had plunged me deep into an abyss devoid of emotion. As was the case with every other album Nick Cave released, I plunged headfirst into The Boatman’s Call, automatically internalizing every lyric and synthesizing its accompanying notes into my very being.

Into My Arms” kicked off what is arguably Cave’s most consistent yet somber offering to date. “And I don’t believe in the existence of angels / But looking at you I wonder if that’s true / But if I did I would summon them together / And ask them to watch over you / To each burn a candle for you / To make bright and clear your path” were the most timely and tear-inducing lyrics I had heard at that point in my life, and I easily applied them to my own depressed and catatonic state. Layered over piano-laden melodies, Cave’s stripped down crooning created an intimate, vulnerable vibe that reached deep within my being with the incessant grip of a reticulating serpent: cold, relentless, and tightening evermore.

The smooth, slightly expanding “Lime Tree Arbour” follows the album’s opener, continuing the melancholy hopelessness of the previous track, but with an added romantic narrative as Nick Cave’s unmistakable voice sings “Through every breath that I breathe / And every place I go / There is a hand that protects me / And I do love her so.” This is hands down my favorite song from The Boatman’s Call, as it bleeds beauty from its lyrics to its painfully exquisite composition. “Lime Tree Arbour” is unique in that it is assuredly the only song from Cave’s immense catalog that could be played at a wedding reception. Later on in the song, a duo of philosophic lines appear as Cave proclaims “There will always be suffering / It flows through life like water.” These lyrics are immediately and immensely memorable, striking a personal chord in me that I find to be ironically uplifting. You know you’re practically dead inside when such aphotic thoughts incur a positive effect.

The third track on The Boatman’s Call, “People Ain’t No Good” again escalates musically, yet this one recedes from the ‘why fucking bother’ tone of the album’s opening song. Just as the words tease of promise, Cave sings, “It ain’t that in their hearts they’re bad / They’d stick by you if they could  / But that’s just bullshit, baby / People just ain’t no good,” tactfully contradicting the uplifting beginning of a verse with its downtrodden conclusion. Personally, this nihilistic mantra is a ‘preaching to the choir’ moment that often evokes a smirking nod from myself. “To our love send a dozen white lilies / To our love send a coffin of wood.” Absofuckinglutely.

Brompton Oratory” turns up the album’s dreariness with its stark, mechanical drum track reminiscent of a hospital room monitor, creating a void of warmth enforced by the dirge-like keys that hypnotically draws the listener into Cave’s lifelong obsessive biblical metaphor. His fascination with that holy tome is most prominent via a singular reference in the song: “The reading is from Luke 24 / Where Christ returns to his loved ones / I look at the stone apostles / Think that it’s alright for some.” Draw what conclusions you will, but that last line sums up the ‘do as thou whilst’ undertone perfectly, and serves to solidify the connecting theme pervasive throughout The Boatman’s Call.

The following track, “There is a Kingdom,” reprises the album’s familiar piano-driven crawl, a song whose chorus brings about an eerily similar cadence to a hymnal that echoes of the dry Sundays – organ and all – of my own upbringing. It’s a vague attempt at redemption for an unspoken sin. Due to the imagery that the sound of the chorus evokes, I tend to skip this track, no matter how flawlessly it contributes to the overall stain this release leaves behind. “There is a kingdom / There is a king / And He lives without / And He lives within.” The song is profoundly clear in its message and I’d rather not get all nostalgic on such matters.

(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?” is lyrically reminiscent of the predominant prophetic flow presented on Cave’s 1992 opus Henry’s Dream. With the familiar ivory-stroked imprint of The Boatman’s Call, this track’s inflection remains loyal to the album’s overall theme. “Out of sorrow entire worlds have been built / Out of longing great wonders have been willed / They’re only little tears, darling, let them spill.” Lyrics such as these are why Nick Cave is even more timeless and relevant than even the legendary Leonard Cohen (I know that isn’t going to sit too well with many people). Cohen was one of the greatest lyricists of all-time, leaving very little space to preside above him. However, to retain such fluidity throughout an album as poignant as The Boatman’s Call is hardly an effortless accomplishment. Unless, of course you happen to be Nick fucking Cave (with his career long co-conspirator and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Warren Ellis alongside).

Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere” is apparently aimed at Cave’s eldest son’s mother, but details such as this matter very little when one has personally applied the words and interpreted meanings to their self. As specific or general the words may come across as, even such lyrics as “In a colonial hotel we fucked up the sun / And then we fucked it down again / Well the sun comes up and the sun goes down / Going round and around to nowhere.” became the description of one of my own actual memories. Be it metaphorical or face-value, I can relate, even if my association has missed the intended mark entirely. When I’m able to literally apply words to my life, no matter by whom they’re written, they become a tattoo for me, a mark upon my being that elevates the lyrics from the confines of its song.

West Country Girl” & “Black Hair” seemingly function as Part One and Part Two of the same song. Their themes feel irrevocably related, circling around the subject of Cave’s lovers across time. Although sonically distinct, they do blend together seamlessly after a few spins. With “West Country Girl’s” lyrics proclaiming “Her Godly body and its fourteen stations / That I have embraced, her palpitations / Her unborn baby crying, ‘Mummy’ / Amongst the rubble of her body” and “Black Hair’s” words describing “Shined at me from the depths / Of her hair of deepest black / While my fingers pushed into / Her straight black hair,” the two songs could’ve fit together as one, carrying the intentional meanings of both without resignation. Nick Cave’s attention to and obsession with minor occurrences creates vastly independent scenarios from what could be overlooked as a singular moment.

Idiot Prayer” finally showcases the entire band as a cohesive unit rather than the accentuations of one particular instrument or another. “Is Heaven just for victims, dear? / Where only those in pain go? / Well it takes two to tango / We will meet again, my love / I know” is a verse that I’ve wished time and time again that I had written. Regardless of the target of these words, it is easily and readily applicable to my own thoughts. Imagine having said this as the last message to be left on a loved one’s voice mail. No, seriously, give it a shot. Priceless.

Far From Me” is yet another return to the core feeling of The Boatman’s Call and to what I have always felt to be amongst the most eponymous lyrics Cave has ever written. Singing from a deeply personal and protected perspective, Cave moans “There is no knowledge but I know it / There’s nothing to learn from that vacant voice.” Those words are as cutting and cold as any that I’ve ever heard, a grand ‘Fuck off’ to any poor soul that may have elicited them. ‘Vacant Voice’ is how I’ve felt about most of the detached and overtly generic faces I’ve encountered, and it’s an immaculate visual captured by the pen of a master. Cave is a relentless son of a bitch, especially when he’s not even attempting to be, and usually when he trades personal experience for storytelling. Because his third person approach is intentionally missing from The Boatman’s Call, lyrics such as this have continually assured us that Cave is a sniper with more than one individual in his sights and he will level just about anyone that he’s bitter towards.

The final track of The Boatman’s Call, Green Eyes,” begins with an homage to the sixteenth century French Renaissance poet Louise Labé. “Kiss me, re-kiss me, & kiss me again,” Cave sings. This is the most haunting offering off the album as Cave speaks the lyrics over his own singing, reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Outside the Wall,” another closing song on another seminal album. The lyrics on the song are vintage Cave as he moans “This useless old fucker with his twinkling cunt / Doesn’t care if he gets hurt,” reminding us that sometimes it’s necessary to establish a proper tone on which to close his most gentle and cohesive recording.

I‘ve been familiar with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since the late eighties, however, it was their seventh release, Henry’s Dream, that I first absorbed into my soul, creating what is now a twenty-five year old connection to one of the greatest bands to have ever existed. Acknowledging that Cave may be an acquired taste for most, nothing as deep or meaningful to me has ever come from a radio. He sits among Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan and Cave’s personal friend, Shane MacGowan1 as one of the most talented, unique, and brilliant artists that cannot be imitated.

I’ve made Cave’s catalog my own, drawing from its expanse many interpretations and imagery that evolve and morph along with me, always relevant or pertinent no matter what stage of my life. If it were any other way, the music I deem as “mine” would be fucking worthless. “Then leave me to my enemied dreams.”

  1. Of The Pogues, as featured along with a masterful roster on 1996’s Murder Ballads’ ending track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death is not the End.” []

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