Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

The Boatman’s Call (1997)


1. Into My Arms 2. Lime-Tree Arbour 3. People Ain’t No Good 4. Brompton Oratory 5. There Is A Kingdom 6. (Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? 7. Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere? 8. West Country Girl 9. Black Hair 10. Idiot Prayer 11. Far From Me 12. Green Eyes


It’s hard to write about women. It’s even harder to sing about ‘em. Of course, women—their alluring beauty, their beguiling ways, their inexplicable willingness to sleep with Gene Simmons—are easily the most sung about topic in pretty much all music with words, so you’d think somebody must have figured out a reliable formula by now. But I’m not so sure. Try to sing about being in love with ‘em and all you’ve got to work with is bucketload of overused clichés. Try to be mean to ‘em for breaking your heart and before you know you’ll be sounding like a woman-hating chauvinist. How can we be expected to sing about them when most of us have no idea how to treat them? Do you know why there’s so much casual misogyny in rock songs? Because rock stars screw a lot of chicks by following the golden rule that was once slurred to me in high school by a drunken acquaintance in the street outside the Roseland Ballroom, where I had just seen the Raconteurs melt my face off: “the crueler you are to women, the more they’ll want to cum off your balls.” Many people who think like this are excellent songwriters, unfortunately. But how many sentimental softies who respect and even cherish women and gender equality are great songwriters? A few, sure – but in rock music, being mean, sarcastic and angry is a lot more compelling than being doting and respectful. That goes double for writing about love and girls – and this is coming from a guy who was touched by devotional love songs like A.C. Newman’s “All My Days And All My Days Off” before I even had a real girlfriend.

The Boatman’s Call is Nick Cave’s breakup album. In fact, it’s so much of a breakup album that it’s about breaking up with two women simultaneously – Viviane Carneiro, the subject of all those mushy love songs on The Good Son, and PJ Harvey, oftentimes known as the female Nick Cave, whom Nick had a brief but torrid affair with around this time. If you ask me, the breakup or divorce album—a label that critics reductively attribute to nearly every record that singer-songwriters produce after having gone through the dissolution of relationship, but can in fact accurately describe some albums—is dangerous territory for a songwriter. When you end a serious relationship, don’t you feel really mopey and over-dramatic? It’s a perfectly normal and human reaction to a breakup, but you don’t stay in that mindset forever. Sure, you might go through a phase where you dye your hair black, get a nose piercing, stalk her, get a restraining order, and fill the void by cutting the eyes out of all the pictures you have of her from the vacation you took to Puerto Rico. But soon enough, you get over it and meet somebody new and realize you might have been overreacting just a little bit. Now, if you just happened to be a songwriter and wrote an album’s worth of songs about the whole ordeal while you were feeling down about your ex, mightn’t you end up feeling a bit embarrassed about how positively full of anguish they sounded over something that no longer seemed all that important?

Nick Cave seems to think so. In the years since The Boatman’s Call was released, he has seemed eager to laugh off the record’s overwhelming Weltschmertz with a chortle to the effect of, “all over some fucking chick!” I dunno, I tend to agree with him. Like so many people who consider this Nick’s finest album, I used to think it was brilliant when I was in high school, back when I was angst-ridden and unable to figure out how to get girls to like me. I considered it something if a Blood On The Tracks for the modern era. But the two albums are really not very much alike (and I know comparing anything to one of the greatest albums of all time and the breakup album to end all breakup albums is unfair, but humor me). Dylan may be heartbroken throughout his 1975 masterpiece, but it’s an asexual and acerbic heartbreak. Sure, he’ll sing a pretty ballad about how he misses his wife, but the only reason “Buckets Of Rain” has such an impact is because you know that just half an hour before he was spewing forth with bitter bile on “Idiot Wind.” Dylan covered a wider range of emotion and points of view than could ever be expected from one man going through so painfully insular and subjective an experience as his estrangement from his wife. Genius that he was, he managed to feel and see them all through the experience of writing songs.

Nick, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to see very far past his own nose. Yeah, there’s a song with the word “idiot” in its title on here, and as the closest thing on the record to a real rock song it’s one of the best tunes to be found across these 52 minutes. But it ain’t no “Idiot Wind”: “This prayer is for you my love/Sent on the wings of a dove/An idiot prayer of empty words/Love, dear, is strictly for the birds,” Nick moans. Nope, throughout this album, Nick is mannered and sober to a point where if it weren’t for that unmistakable baritone (and the fact that he refers to himself as “this useless old fucker with his twinkling cunt” in the last song), I’d have a hard time believing that this is the same guy who sang “Tupelo” and “Deanna.” There’s even a straight up Jesus song on here, and though he’d been using biblical imagery for years, but he had never expressed such straightforward, and apparently sincere, New Testament religiosity as he does in “There Is A Kingdom.” The lyrics ain’t nothing I can’t find on one of those cards that proselytizers hand out on the subway, but I welcome the influence that I imagine religious grandeur had on the song’s near epic-sounding, melodic, major chord chorus – something we don’t get very many of on this album.

Though I may have teased out a few of the less inspiring lyrical passages found on Call, this is still Nick Cave, and many of the lyrics indeed possess great poetic beauty. Nonetheless, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I find myself less likely to pay attention to the lyrics than on any other Nick Cave album, despite Nick’s voice being mixed very loudly over largely sparse instrumentation. Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t so much boring musical backing behind him. Now, to be fair, at least half these songs are unassailably poignant pieces of work. The solo piano piece “Into My Arms” is a powerful opening statement in the fact that, both lyrically and musically, it is perhaps Nick’s most unpretentious song ever. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” may seem like a clunky opening line, but it works in the context of a song that proves that, when writing on a topic as complicated as love, sometimes simplicity is the best way to convey it. A bevy of gentle organs and twinkling piano buoy the similarly straightforward and touching “Lime-Tree Arbour,” while best of all is the awed, shimmering “(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For,” which must be considered one of the top 5 Nick Cave songs of all time.

Of the remaining tracks, most aspire for the same kind of touching, placid beauty, but instead achieve little besides being wearisomely repetitive collections of three or four slow, weepy piano chords and dull arrangements. On the latter point, there’s barely any guitar here, with Blixa’s shrill drones only making sporadic cameo appearances way in the background of certain songs. Otherwise, a lot of the time, all we’ve got is Nick playing the piano backed by the rhythm section and maybe an overdubbed organ or two. Any extra coloring comes courtesy of the newest Bad Seed, Warren Ellis, who adds violin and accordion embellishments. They sound nice when rounding out the edges but perhaps a bit sparse when forming the basis of entire songs (“Black Hair”). But no amount of squeezebox could save crashing bores like “Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?” or “People Ain’t No Good,” the latter of which showcases the mind-blowing creativity it takes to repeat a basic I-V-IV chord change over and over again at a snail’s pace for six fucking minutes.

A lot of this album really is as beautiful as its biggest proponents—and there are plenty of folks who call it Nick Cave’s masterpiece—say it is. But there’s too much inconsistency for me – and too much breakup shit. Go fall in love again, will ya Nick? Or at least sing about murdering people instead.

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