Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Top 100 Albums - #10: The Boatman's Call (1997)

Kicking off the Top 10 is The Boatman's Call, the fourth and final entry by post-punk icons Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.The 1990s were a good time for The Bad Seeds, as they produced a string of albums which altered their raucous 1980s sound whilst still receiving critical acclaim. The Good Son (1990, #40), a retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the elder son's point of view, introduced a sense of grandeur to the band, which allowed them to craft more ambitious and complex material while never seeming overpowering. The follow-ups, Henry's Dream (1992) and Let Love In (1994), saw Cave starting to open himself up a little more, creating beautiful if ironic love songs like 'Straight To You' to counterbalance the anarchic live feel of The Bad Seeds present on such anthems as 'Red Right Hand'. Murder Ballads (1996) saw Cave stepping out still further, confronting death and violence head on instead of merely tiptoeing subtly around them; his duets with PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue on the album are rooted in his great mix of blood-drenched darkness and black humour. With each of these albums receiving acclaim, and in the case of Murder Ballads major awards, the band were perfectly poised to deliver their masterpiece.

We open with an absolute gem of a song. 'Into My Arms' opens with a simple, mournful part on the piano, and then Cave comes in with his distinctive sunken baritone. It's an incredibly tender love song, about an atheist who falls in love with a Christian, and whose relationship with her leads him to question both her faith and his lack of faith. Throughout his career Cave has created some very spiritual music, but this is one of his most spiritually honest songs, dealing with themes of doubt and unbelief in a subtle and gentle manner which most Christian songwriters could not begin to comprehend. By setting up someone he dearly loves as the protagonist, rather than the listener, he avoids being false or preachy, and by keeping the production and instrumentation simple it feels like an honest one-to-one confession. It's a truly wonderful piece of work.

'Lime-Tree Arbour' retains the simplicity of the piano while bringing in the drums and bass. On the former, Thomas Wylder provides some simple brushwork which anchors the piece, never doing more than it needs to and thus giving the space for Cave, on both vocals and Hammond organ. Mick Harvey's part on the latter is to play off Wylder, providing a slightly smoky, jazzy flavour to liven up a straightforwardly 4/4 song. Cave's lyrics are simple and personal; he sings about his love without feeling the need for complex imagery or bitter irony, as he has so often done in the past.

'People Ain't No Good', thanks partly to its use in Shrek 2 (2004), has become the ultimate down-and-out song. The opening lines - People just ain't no good/ I think that's well understood - strike straight to the heart of anyone who has lost faith in humanity, either through a series of alienating encounters or simply through a bad day at the office. It's more than just a blues song with gentle piano, however. It's a love song in which the love quickly goes out of the marriage and thus out of the world around them; where once the trees stood with blossoms now they are barren and bare. Maybe Cave is being ironic even here. In describing how love quickly fades in a world without trust or optimism, he is offering up said trust and optimism as the way things should be, or - more bravely - how they really are. It's another wonderful song which marries simple melodies with ornate lyrics to create something very good indeed.

'Brompton Oratory' slowly lifts its head from under muffled production, turning into a sweet but subdued piece about the nature of religion. Cave's Everyman slowly shuffles into the overbearing church on Pentecost and confronts a dichotomy on the nature of God's love. On the one hand, from the second verse, he is clearly alienated from God's love in the practices of Christianity and the Church:

The reading is from Luke 24
Where Christ returned to his loved ones
I look at the stone Apostles
Think that it's all right for some

And yet, he goes on, the woman he loves is so perfect that she may just be proof of God's existence, and that The Almighty means him well. Cave is clearly being ironic when he claims that neither God nor the Devil could do the job that you did, baby/ Of bringing me to my knees. It's more subtle even than the last three numbers, but still very warming.

'There Is A Kingdom' keeps the focus firmly on Christ and the link between heavenly and earthly love. Its central message and motif is Cave comparing his love for his earthly partner to all the magical feats of nature and life, concluding that God must be behind all of them in some way, shape or form. He begins by describing God as a King who lives both without and within, and ends by finally confessing that There is a King/ And he is everything. Skeptics may baulk at such language or beliefs, but there's no denying that this song is tender, personal and introspective without being morbidly so, for any of those three characteristics. Much like Cave's work on the follow-up, No More Shall We Part (2001, #19), it's a song about spiritual and religious assurance, and above all the instrinsic link between faith and love (whether religious faith or otherwise).

'(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?', however, sees some of that assurance turned to doubt. This song is, from one angle, about Cave's relationship with PJ Harvey around the recording of Murder Ballads. It's filled with some wonderful lines which say so little and yet mean so much. In the third verse Cave remarks: Outside my window the world has gone to war. This is a man who sees the chaos of the world which he is struggling to fight or survive in, and seeks the love of a woman to protect and strengthen him in his hour of need. The Biblical themes are still there, especially in the last first which paraphrases the gospels, so that you slowly begin to understanding how much Cave's love for God and love for people is intertwined. Harvey's guitar parts really lift this piece, adding fibre to the slow jazzy brushwork of Wylder and creating a more brooding mood at the start.

'Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?' is about another woman in Cave's life: Viviane Carneiro, mother of his son Luke. The mood remains minimalist, the verse structure fixed, and the delivery sombre, but there are some new things on offer. Harvey's acoustic work injects into the mix an interesting choice of major chords, to offset or counterpoint Cave's melancholy melody, both on piano and vocals. This is a boon considering this is the longest track on here, and by the end it feels like it too. That said, it's not as drawn out as 'Death Is Not The End' on the previous album, a Dylan cover which seemed to go on for years. The production is still sparse, as though he is whispering across a desert plain at sunset. And while the lyrics are less accessible than they were in the first half, by the time you reach the end you'll have been sucked into it this song like all the rest.

'West Country Girl', another song about PJ Harvey, is the first time the Bad Seeds drop the ball on this album. It's not terrible, by any stretch of the imagination, but the band feel less sure of themselves, drifting too far towards English folk in the intro which jars with their American roots. Cave's delivery is as clear as before, but he is wrestling with the intrusive percussion here and as a result his lyrics jar at the crucial moments. There are times when you wish that Martyn P. Casey would just lay off the bass and let the treble elements guide the song.

'Black Hair' is much better, combining the more English sound of a piano accordion (played by Warren Ellis) with the brooding bass organ sounds from Harvey. Cave drifts both above and amidst these two sounds, disposing with strict metre until the song's denouement. It's almost a spoken word performance, a piece of prose rather than lyrical poetry, save only for the repetition of the title. Cave wrings all that he can out of the image, and the song wraps up just when you think he has exhausted every metaphor and adjective he has. It's another gorgeously understated piece which knows just how to leave you wanting more.

'Idiot Prayer' is the last truly great song on this album. Ellis switches to plucking the strings of his violin while Wylder switches from brushes to sticks and steadily thumps his snare to drive this song on. It's more bittersweet than the last few songs, with Cave jumping between earthly love and snide comments on life after death: Is heaven just for victims, dear/ Where only those in pain go?/ Well it takes two to tango. Like a lot of the best rock songs, the right instruments are introduced at just the right time and nothing is allowed to overstay its welcome. The Hammond organ which ripples through the second half would look out of place in the first, and Cave knows it. Likewise, Ellis' violin gradually fades from view, before rising once again in the last minute to give a delicate and tragic farewell serenade to his love. Everything about this song is just right.

'Far From Me' brings Casey's bass back to the fore, with both this and the drums settling up a jazz rhythm to which Cave and Ellis can respond. The latter provides some jagged work on the bow to compliment the shimmering organ; the former does what he does best, delivering sorrowful lines of immense beauty with clear enunciation and a deep sense of yearning. It's probably the saddest song on here, being as it is about distance, departure and the pain that comes from missing someone. It's also more exhausting than a lot of the other songs; it may be over 5 minutes long, but by this stage the wearily repetitive structure may be starting to wear a little thin. Nevertheless, this is a very good song.

We finish with 'Green Eyes', which is a pity since it spoils the mood in so many ways. Firstly, there is the profanity of lines like This useless old fucker/ And his twinkling cunt. There's nothing wrong with profanity in songs in general, so long as it is used to convey meaning. Here there is meaning but it's out of kiltre with the sombre, funeral mood of the other tracks. Secondly, there is the production, in particular the double-tracking of Cave's vocals. The off-setting of a high- and low-register part leaves you confused over which one to listen to first, and the drawn-out higher part soon gets very annoying. It's a shame to finish on a downer, albeit not a totally disastrous one.

Nick Cave albums are not normally the place to come to if you want comfort, contentment or peace of mind. But on The Boatman's Call, we surprisingly get all of these things, albeit in ways which we don't suspect. Within Cave's lyrics and the songs built around them, there still remains the deep-seated religious doubt, obsession with darkness and cruel interest in violence which has marked all of Cave's best and most interesting work. But one does not have to look much further, or deeper, to find deep-seated themes of redemption, love and faith rewarded. Insofar as Cave has ever been an optimist, it's his most optimistic record, combining the reassurance and happiness that faith can bring with a renewed connection with humanity. It's not, however, an advertisement for contentment, certainly not in the way that the follow-up could be construed to be; simply because there is less in the way of musical anarchy, as on 'The Curse Of Millhaven' from Murder Ballads, does not mean that Cave is satisfied. What The Boatman's Call is, at its heart, is a deeply emotional yet highly sombre exploration of the relationship between God and Man, told through pure poetry and wonderfully minimalist music. It is undoubtedly Cave's masterpiece, and a masterpiece of the album form itself.

4.17 out of 5

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