The Boatman’s Call, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, 1997. Mute/BMG.

“The Boatman’s Call,” Nineteen Years On

This story was originally published in the 2 September 2016 issue of The Reed College Quest.

Nick Cave cuts a fine figure, storming through the world in black, fervent emotion — and the dyed black hair and funereal suits to match. Together with his band, the Bad Seeds, he’s released a remarkable 22 albums in 32 years, ranging from rock to punk to murder ballads to strong blues to his own personal brand of hymns on 1997’s The Boatman’s Call.

Sparse, intimate, and raw, The Boatman’s Call is a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album like no other. Centering around Cave and his piano, his perceptiveness of the human condition and gentle, immersive sound bring you in, right to the moments he relives in his songs. There’s no crashing drums here, no high-energy guitar, no theatrics, just the beauty and simplicity and the how-does-he-just-get-it of Cave’s lyrics. It’s a twelve-track tale of intimacy, whether it’s with God, former lover PJ Harvey, his first wife Viviane Carneiro, or death itself.

The Boatman’s Call is both gentle and hard-hitting, with Cave delivering achingly brilliant lines that don’t call attention to themselves in a crescendo or musical landslide, but sit on your skin and then sink themselves under it, seeping deep into the cracks that other musicians often just can’t get to. There are very few quatrains/bridges as hard-hitting as in “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, with Cave spending every last bit of hope he has wondering if this woman is The One, desperately asking, “O we will know, won’t we? The stars will explode in the sky,” before answering emptily, “O but they don’t, do they? Stars have their moment, and then they die.”

On the outstanding “Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere,” Cave sings of a relationship’s descent into bitterness, accented by a quietly calm bassline and the agonizing grief and rawness of a screeching violin. You can almost hear the street below — the setting of the scene he describes as the “just one single day” that he wishes he could relive; almost see him and his lover standing there, calm together in the midst of chaos; almost feel the painted wood peeling beneath their fingertips and feet.

Cave bookends the album with powerful prayers for the salvation of others — “Into My Arms” and “Idiot Prayer” — but he’s just as guilty, just as complicit in sins as they are, and no one knows it better than him.

As a character, Cave is the perfect storm of baring his soul and destroying it too; the devout Christian who shoots up heroin in an attempt to find something bigger than life itself, he’s obsessed with death and sex, love and hate, absolution and sin. The world would be a less interesting and beautiful place if he hadn’t been spending his whole life trying to figure out exactly who or what he is; where he lies on the lines he loves to cross.

Logically speaking, it would be a less weird world, too — the man sells tea towels with his completely naked body on them, for Pete’s sake; the number of people worldwide who can say that they grabbed a cloth to wipe up a spot of spilled tea and grabbed a rockstar’s penis instead has never been higher, presumably — but actually, in a way, the opposite is true.

Life is weird. Life is really bloody weird. There’s no way around it: no other way to say it (unless, on a good day, you want to bestow upon it the eternal words of Richard Curtis and declare it “surreal but nice”). It’s messy and it’s shit and it’s great and sometimes it’s all of the above and sometimes it’s none at all. All we can do is try to make sense of it all happening as it happens. And sometimes, we need a helping hand — or at least someone else’s voice out there in the strange, echoing madness of it all, yelling that they don’t know either, but that they’re trying, too.