Review Summary: If you only buy one album exploring love and the loss of it, make it this one.
The Boatman's Call is THE album about heartbreak. Next time someone dumps you, stick this on and brood about all that could've been and was cruelly snatched from your grasp. The beginning and end of love are explored in this album. The middle is a lot more difficult, although I'm sure he's had a go. Cave explained it best himself when he spoke of duende, the inexplicable sadness, present in pretty much all love songs. For where there is love there is also loss somewhere along the line.
This album came the year after Murder Ballads, an album of songs about flower arrangements unless I completely misunderstood that one. He'd broken up with his wife and also with PJ Harvey in rapid succession, not a good year for any man. He was also battling a heroin addiction which would not subside for a good few years yet. Instead of writing another album that swung between black comedy, violence that would make GG Allin blush and covers of traditional and Dylan songs, he made this. Some would say his masterpiece, a meditation on love and God and how love disappears.
Now onto the music. The album starts with Into My Arms, a song of new and remarkably intense love opening with arguably the best opening line to an album "I don't believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do". This sets his stall out pretty early with the two main themes. Love and God. All this is set to an arrangement of piano and bass which is barely there, while Cave's voice rings out like an Australian Scott Walker, every vowel and every consonant etched into the speakers.
Then comes Lime Tree Arbour, a song which for some reason always makes me wonder what it'd sound like in Elvis Presley's famous comeback special (Elvis of course another Cave obsession). This song, from which the album title is pulled, is a simple and beautiful love song written as only Nick can, with a fantastic arrangement. Yet lurking within the song is the shadow of his love one's death. It's not just his prior reputation as a songwriter either, there is a definite hint that the one he sings of has passed away.
This continues through Brompton Oratory, once more linking religion into the whole vicious matter. Not only is this song set in a church (and to the Bad Seeds once more barely there arrangement of Casio keyboard plinks, drums and some spectral guitar) but:
No God up in the sky
No devil beneath the sea
Could do the job that you did, baby
Of bringing me to my knees
Before we get to Brompton Oratory, we get People Ain't No Good. Which I actually agree with on the whole, misanthropic sod that I am:
It ain't that in their hearts they're bad
They can comfort you, some even try
They nurse you when you're ill of health
They bury you when you go and die
It ain't that in their hearts they're bad
They'd stick by you if they could
But that's just bull s***, baby
People just ain't no good
This song once more references the end of a love affair, which has no doubt brought him to be in this state of mind, and it is set to an arrangement that wouldn't shame Tom Waits in his Asylum Years, full of brushed drums, vibes and piano while radiating a delicate anger. It also appeared in Shrek 2 of all things. On this track, the seam of dark humour running all through the album is very apparent. When you're in the state he's in on this album, sometimes you do have to laugh bitterly at the low which you're in. It's just a person, after all. Then again, everyone's just a person, and he or she could've been the one. They've gone, leaving you only in pain. So **** them.
After Brompton Oratory's gone by, the love/God theme continues on There Is A Kingdom, one of the few tracks on which it's apparent Cave actually has a backing band of considerable size. There's some fantastic backing vocals from Conway Savage and it's all very lovely, but then (Are You The One) I've Been Waiting For ushers itself in delicately. This is a song that almost resembles a piece of slowed down Sun studios rockabilly, albeit married to one of the best songs of pure shivering devotion ever written.
I'm not even going to ruin the surprise of hearing it this time by quoting choice lyrics from it, if you really want to read them, do, as it stands alone as a piece of poetry but nothing can come close to the way he delivers these words. It's a performance worthy of Scott Walker, mentioned earlier. Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere? After a song as good as that you'd think that was a good question, but this is equally good, with some fantastic violin from Warren Ellis who'd go on to be Cave's main collaborator in recent years. This seems to be about Cave's crumbling marriage, expressing regret and guilt while still throwing blame at his ex wife.
West Country Girl is another kettle of fish, and one of the songs most obviously about PJ Harvey with references to her crooked smile, green eyes and heart shaped face. PJ Harvey can do that to a man. Once more in this song love and God collide with her "Godly body with it's fourteen stations". The arrangement is almost desparate, echoing the beating of a lovestruck heart. It resembles a more gentrified version of Hard On For Love from his earlier Your Funeral....My Trial.However, in recent years this song has been performed in an altogether different manner, delivered with venom and sarcasm and the lovestruck heart became a murderous pulse lending a new light to lines such as:
Her accent which I'm told is "broad"
That I have heard and has been poured
Into my human heart and filled me
With love, up to the brim, and killed me
As if this wasn't obvious enough, the song after it is Black Hair, a song about PJ Harvey. This is one of the more unusual songs musically on the album, resembling something once more from the work of Tom Waits in this case Frank's Wild Years with it's groaning organ and accordion. Very obliquely it sketches the breakup between Nick and PJ, shadowing the true meaning of the song in it's many repetitions of the word black. Listen to it in the wrong mood and you want to shout "HOW MUCH MORE BLACK CAN IT BE, NICK!?".
In the right mood, though, it's heartbreaking, with:
Full of all my whispered words, her black hair
And wet with tears and good-byes, her hair of deepest black
All my tears cried against her milk-white throat
Hidden behind the curtain of her beautiful black hair
The song ending by simply repeating "Today she took a train to the West". This is followed by the two most straightforwardly bitter songs on the album, Idiot Prayer and Far From Me. Idiot Prayer is the album's only character piece about murder and even in this case it's also about lost love. This is one of the only tracks where you can hear the guitar clangs of Blixa Bargeld, and this album was the beginning of the end of the Einsturzende Neubauten's time in the Bad Seeds.
In Idiot Prayer he talks to his victim, seemingly his ex lover, before his iminent execution. The violin is once more fantastic here, the instrumental sections of the song saying as much as the sections with lyrics in expressing the character's peaceful yet tormented psyche. It could easily be about a breakup with the blood on show as a metaphor, but if you take it as a song about murder it works almost as respite to show that Nick still had time to write about other things although his pain bleeds through here.
Far From Me is almost funky in places, and Bargeld's guitar shimmers with Ellis's violin soaring alongside it. However it's also a real tour de force for Cave, with some of the most powerful lyrics on the album contained within in this angry putdown of an ex lover encompassing every nasty, niggling little emotion you feel in times such as these. Anger, self doubt, pity, self pity....the list goes on. "You were my brave hearted lover, at the first taste of trouble went running back to mother", "I hope your heart beats happy in your infant breast". Amen, brother. Amen.
Then comes my only real criticism of this album's sequencing. Green Eyes, probably also about PJ Harvey, a sleepy almost spaghetti western soundtrack sounding number with melodica. Cave sings the lyrics in a weary tone and then over this vocal track repeats them, spoken with appropriate gravity. "This useless old f***er with his twinkling c***". See what I said about the humour. He joked about it being about Tori Amos sewing sequins into her pubic hair. Do not take EVERYTHING he says seriously, but I have little to no interest in Tori Amos' vagina.
This is a great track, and actually sounds like waking up with someone, whether it be the one night stand referenced in the lyrics or a long time lover, but after the gravity of Far From Me, it seems a bit of an afterthought, probably ideally placed somewhere in the PJ Harvey segment so it ran West Country Girl - Green Eyes - Black Hair or something. I don't know. That's a minor quibble, and it doesn't ruin the album for me at all and I doubt anyone else has even thought of it.
This is not Cave's masterpiece, I hasten to add, merely one of them. In terms of a consistent mood though, it's probably his best sequenced album and it's definitely all one piece. Love in Cave's world had previously ONLY been terrifying. It's terrifying here too, but as well as scared and embittered by love here he is awestruck, joyful and maybe even a bit horny now and again. Listen to this album and think "If he can lose PJ Harvey and be OK about it, then I have to pull myself together to".