ALBUM REVIEW: The Boatman's Call [1997] by by Alice Hammond (NY Rock)
Sunday, 13 August 2006

Nick Cave, the prince of darkness, is at it once again with The Boatman’s Call, a collection of haunting, introspective and clearly brilliant songs. Among the topics, Count Cave covers in his latest release are divorce, despair, infidelity, life, death and, of course, heaven and hell.

The current CD is no less harrowing than last year’s Murder Ballads, though a touch more personal. In "People Ain’t No Good," Cave sings about his estrangement from his long-time lover and mother of his son Luke, Viviane Carnerio, "To our love send a dozen white lilies, to our love send a coffin of wood." Other songs make casual references to people who have been instrumental in forging Cave’s most recent experiences. The lyrics of "West Country Girl," for one, seem to make reference to P.J. Harvey’s "black hair" and "heart-shaped face."

Cave has, on occasion, been labeled a "rock star," but this phrase is a distinct misnomer. His music is soft and sparse. AC/DC he certainly is not. On The Boatman’s Call, his typical biblical references are ever more plentiful. In "Brompton Oratory," he sings of "stone apostles" and readings "from Luke 24." In "Into My Arms," he wonders if angels could "clear your path... to walk, like Christ, in grace and love."

Cave, in fact, has been spending much time warming the pews of various churches such as the aforementioned "Brompton Oratory." He says: "When I go to church, I have to take so much of it as metaphor, and I find it very irritating. The sermons are often pathetic and untrue, based on terrible misinterpretations of the Bible. But I like the order and the ritual of a church service. It gives me an elevated feeling about the mundane. I’m more aware of things... I haven’t had any great epiphanies. I just feel it’s my duty to educate myself about the concept of God."

If you’re unfamiliar with Cave, he is a singer-songwriter in the vein of Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits (minus a few dozen gargles with razor blades). His songs are unrelentingly dark. In fact, he probably deserves the "Bad Attitude" tag line more than this publication does. The Boatman’s Call exhibits him in his prime, a mature yet relevant and potent artist. His backup band, The Bad Seeds, plays with painful restraint leaving stark holes in the music in a manner that well complements Cave's anguished compositions.

"There’s hardly any instrumentation," says Cave. "Everyone in the band suppressed their ego for the greater good of the record. Apart from me, of course... my ego runs riot, as ever."

On The Boatman’s Call, Cave’s "ego" did little to get in the way of producing a fine record. Some of it works, some of it, well, I’m not so sure. I probably could have done without the narrative on top of the vocals in "Green Eyes" -- it comes off slightly corny. Further, I’m not sure if lines like "You were my mad little lover, in a world where everybody fucks everybody else over" really works. But these are small flaws -- if flaws they are -- in an otherwise excellent collection of disturbing and well-delivered songs.