I was tempted to write this review with just one word. That word is ‘beautiful’. Written by Nick Cave at exactly the same time as Murder Ballads, these songs were written with simplicity in mind, and as such the majority of these superior compositions feature a stripped back Bad Seeds, and a heavy dose of piano. The contrast with Murder Ballads could not be greater, taking a deeply intimate, romantic and often spiritual tone. No one dies here, one may be relieved to know.
But maybe a little part of Nick Cave died in order to make a collection of songs; that part of him would be the preacher, the aggressor, the dervish spirit howling and caterwauling over a maelstrom of sensational music. It genuinely isn’t a criticism – I happen to think that this is among Cave’s finest work. Everything about The Boatman’s Call is black and white – the Johnny Cash-esque Anton Cobijn photo of a particularly harrowed Nick Cave on the front cover, through the predominance of the piano keys across the LP, through to the downright clarity of Cave’s songwriting. What’s most clear about The Boatman’s Call is the often obvious theme of these songs, for this is Nick Cave’s most directly personal collection of songs, from the post-PJ Harvey reflectiveness of the quirky folk leanings of ‘West Country Girl’ and ‘Black Hair’, through to his ruminations on his failed marriage on ‘People Just Ain’t No Good’ or ‘Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere’.
However, aside from a fair amount of openness from our tortured songsmith, The Boatman’s Call also features two generally beautiful love songs – ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Brompton Oratory’. Like much of the album, these have a musical accompaniment from The Bad Seeds that is directly informed by subtle jazz but the latter also features a perfectly twee Casio rhythm that sounds like it survived from Cave’s original demo. The latter describes a trip made by Cave to Kensington’s famous, and imposing, landmark, and finds Cave wishing he were one of the stone apostles therein, just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his muse’s intense beauty. It perfectly captures the intensity of romance’s first flourishes, that feeling of not being able to cope anymore. ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ is just mystical and beautiful, its waterside setting making me think of Murder Ballads‘ ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, with all the same romantic longings, just none of the death; an alternative ending, perhaps?
The album features the full Bad Seeds line-up (Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, the late Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis), albeit in controlled doses, and benefits from an unusually restrained production job from Flood, who also produced the oft-slated U2 album Pop the same year. The style of production is subtle and delicate, and Cave’s vocal is dominant in the mix, casting a personal, intimate shadow over proceedings. It feels like a one-to-one connection between the narrator and sympathetic listener. Warren Ellis’ violin is also an important element here, receiving greater space in the mix than it had been given previously, bestowing the gypsy folk of ‘West Country Girl’ with a rabidly maudlin edge. His work on ‘Idiot Prayer’, perhaps the track closest to a classic Bad Seeds ballad sees his violin overtaking Blix’s fuzzy guitar as lead instrument, a sign of the sea change that was to come.
I have my own, highly personal reasons, for counting this among my favourite albums of all time. Suffice it to say, many years on, it’s the more miserable tracks here – like ‘Far From Me’ – that I find myself reflecting on when I think of that period in my life. ‘Can’t you find somebody else / That you can ring and tell?’, Cave sings on that penultimate, delicately poignant song. Wise words that I wish my younger self had heeded.
First published 2004; edited 2018.
(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence