Suspended in Your Bleak and Fishless Sea - The Boatman's Call turns 20
Like many, my introduction to Nick Cave was through his seminal track “Red Right Hand”—a song, over 20 years old now, has taken on a life of its own—used in movies like Scream 2, and probably best known a this point as the theme to the Netflix television program “Peaky Blinders.” The first time I heard it was through its inclusion on Songs in The Key of X, a soundtrack of sorts to the television show “The X-Files.” It, along with a hidden track (sequenced before the rest of the CD actually started) were Cave’s two contributions.”
For about the next 10 years, I was aware of Cave as a musician, but I didn’t start actively seeking out his work until I was in college. I was watching the movie Zero Effect with two friends of mine, and there is a scene where Cave’s tender ballad “Into My Arms” is used, and I thought to look up the song. From there, I bought his two most recent albums at the time—2003’s Nocturama and the 2004 double LP Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus.
Eventually I was able to find a copy of the album “Into My Arms” was pulled from, his 1997 effort, The Boatman’s Call.
Like all things seem to do, The Boatman’s Call is now 20 years old, and at the time of its release, it was Cave’s tenth album with his backing band, The Bad Seeds. It can be looked at as an important record in his canon—stylistically, lyrically, and personally—finding Cave at a crossroads of sorts during this period in his life.
For someone who had spent the first portion of his career making volatile, confrontational, and sinister sounding post-punk, both with The Bad Seeds as well as the short lived Birthday Party, The Boatman’s Call represents a huge switch. The album is lengthy and evocative, structured around incredibly minimalistic romantic ballads.
Maybe that switch has a lot to do with where Cave was in his life at this point. He made no point of hiding his dependence on heroin during a bulk of his career, but by 1996 and into 1997 with the release of the album, he was on the verge of getting clean. He was also involved in a tumultuous relationship with singer and songwriter PJ Harvey (the inspiration behind many of Boatman’s songs) and shortly after the album’s release, he met his wife, model Susie Bick, whom he married in 1999.
For a band that was used to making theatrical, dramatic, and cacophonic music, there is almost very little for The Bad Seeds to do on Boatman. Many of the songs are simply Cave at the piano, with very little additional instrumentation. At this point, it was Cave at his most reserved and restrained—rather than snarling or rasping his vocals, it finds him singing in his trademark baritone; something that he would continue on with (for the most part) into 2000’s masterful And No More Shall We Part, and into 2003’s Nocturama.
The aforementioned “Into My Arms” is probably one of Cave’s most tender compositions, and it sets the tone for Boatman. Accompanied only by a bass, Cave ponders love as well as spirituality (both themes that run throughout the album) over gentle a very gentle yet strong piano arrangement that only dips into slight dissonance during the song’s refrain. “I don’t believe in the existence of angels,” he croons in his low, rumbling voice. “But lookin’ at you, I wonder if that’s true.”
A lengthy album (nearly an hour), there’s a gloomy shadow that casts itself over The Boatman’s Call, but unlike the gloom in Cave’s output prior to this, it’s not oppressive, and through the fog, there is a glimmer of hope, or at the very least, optimism.
Cave carries that gentleness into the album’s first half, with the twinkling romance of “Lime Tree Arbour,” and slightly dips back into that dissonance with the lengthy, slow motion “People Ain’t No Good,” a song that, strangely enough, found its place on one of the Shrek movie soundtracks—a fascinating tidbit since Cave does utter “That’s all just bullshit, baby,” at one point in the song.
And yes, sure, it kind of trudges along at a snail’s pace, with sleepy instrumentation, but you have to admire Cave’s bluntness and sense of humor in writing a song called “People Ain’t No Good.”
With the album’s intentionally quiet and reserved demeanor does come some problems—specifically the album’s pacing, which begins to falter slightly by the album’s fourth track—the plodding “Brompton Oratory,” and even a little in “There is A Kingdom,” despite its relatively catchy and melodious refrain.
Things begin to shift, and pick up again, at least temporarily, as the album heads toward its second half with the album’s other very direct love song, “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?,” the sweeping, dramatic, and sexually charged “Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?,” and the tension that builds and builds but is never quite released in “West Country Girl.”
For as well as Cave and the band work within a restrained, minimal set up, there are a few misfires sprinkled throughout—“Black Hair” happens to be one of them. Buried within the album’s final third, it finds Cave delivering more evocative and fragmented lyrics (possibly about PJ Harvey) while (now former) Bad Seed Mick Harvey (no relation to PJ) playing a bass organ, and Warren Ellis wheezing on the piano accordion. Cave’s voice can’t quite reach what he’s trying to hit on the “today she took a train to the west,” lines, and maybe that’s the point, but as the album careens to its conclusion, a short, dirge-like piece like this kind of stalls the pacing nearly completely.
Returning to a song that shares a lot musically (perhaps a coincidence) with “There is A Kingdom,” “Idiot Prayer” attempts to bring the energy level back up momentarily before Cave saunters into the slow simmering “Far From Me.”
“Far From Me” would make a pretty good closing track, however, serving as a bit of an epilogue, “Green Eyes” is what actually finished The Boatman’s Call—a song that is very in line with “Black Hair,” it finds Cave layering his vocal tracks (one singing, one speaking in a low rumble) with minimal accompaniment from a melodica and piano.
It also features one of the album’s most eyebrow raising lyrics: “This useless old fucker with his twinkling cunt doesn’t care if he gets hurt.”
“Green Eyes” is not a terrible song, per se, it’s just bizarre; even for Nick Cave.
One of the interesting things to think about when revisiting The Boatman’s Call 20 years later is how well, for the most part, it has aged. While it’s very apparently that material from The Bad Seeds in the 1980s sounds dated, some of their work from the early 1990s has that sound to it as well. With Boatman, as well as the albums that follow, Cave and the band seemed to have locked into some kind of timelessness with their music and production aesthetics.
The band’s last two efforts—Push The Sky Away and the excellent Skeleton Tree have found Cave operating in a much more restrained structure that created a lot of underlying tension, but never really released it as explosively as they had in the past. The difference between those two albums and this one is that Boatman finds Cave, as a singer and lyricist, being much more introspective in comparison. In looking at his Bad Seeds canon as a whole, you could say The Boatman’s Call was a bit of an experiment, or an artistic gamble, and it was one that he and the group were able to execute successfully, and therefore, incorporate elements of in latter day work.
Nick Cave is always going to be a dramatic and theatrical performer, but an album like this—touching on love and spirituality so directly—shows what a thoughtful and diverse songwriter and singer his was on the verge of maturing into as he eased into his 40s, crafting a record that stands out for his die hard fans and listeners, as well as serving as a welcoming access point for those interested in exploring all the facets of his work.