“I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do.”
If I were God, I wouldn’t have the heart to reveal myself after a first-line like that. I would lovingly stay well away to protect man’s humble, heartfelt demurring from my heavy-handed, all-consuming truths. In my infinite benevolent wisdom, I would know that to intervene at this late stage in the game would do nothing other than reveal that all the little day-to-day travesties and bullshit that is eternally endured happens for a reason. In the process, I would make redundant the hopeful boon of art that offers salvation from suffering – art like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ tenth studio album, The Boatman’s Call.
The Bad Seeds’ previous outing had been Murder Ballads a dark anthology that documented everything from crimes of passion to crimes of the utterly insane. Only a year later, Cave invited you to curl up in the womb of his piano and feel the quilted warmth of tender honesty.
You should always judge an album by its cover and in this instance the world presented was the colour and hue of sombre monochrome, punctuated by a title cast in the deep maroon of arterial blood. This sparse, minimalist and reverent styling bleed through onto the record. The thoughtful profile that Cave enacts on the sleeve, likewise, spells a departure from the gaudy violence of previous releases in favour of personal ruminations.
However, as we reappraise Boatman’s Call exactly 24 years after its release, it would be a mistake to think that these personal reflections resulted in a more insular album. By contrast, the record is a singing invocation that proves deeply affecting, not just as a document of Cave’s hardships, but also in a wider reflective sense. The personal is transposed into something universal by the transcendent manner in which Cave approaches his inner turmoil. The battles he was facing in his private life may well have fuelled the album, but they are tantamount to nothing more than impetus when it comes to the resultant evolving mass.
From the towering opener that summons the divine as a measuring stick of devotion to the readings of “Luke 24” in ‘Brompton Oratory’, the notion of divinity is the spiritual home for the record. It is through the biblical imagery that permeates the album that Cave compassionately embalms the music with reverence. As he explained himself in a recent open letter: “Personally, I need to see the world through metaphors, symbols and images. It is through images that I can engage meaningfully with the world. The personalising of this invisible notion of the spirit is necessary for me to fully understand it. I find that using the word ‘Christ’ as the actualising symbol of the eternal goodness in all things extremely useful. The Christ in everything makes sense to me — I can see it — and helps me to act more compassionately within the world.”
The albums compassionate approach – uncompromising but devoid of any cynicism – reflected the evolution of Cave as a songwriter and performer. The fact that the soulful entreaty of ‘People Ain’t No Good’ went on to feature on the soundtrack of Shrek 2 shows how far the goth-Sinatra had come from his days in ‘The Birthday Party’. That is not to besmirch the tremendous work that The Birthday Party produced, rather to summon a point of contrast in terms of songwriting scope; it would be incredulous for any of their screeching paraphernalia-laden profanity to be anywhere near a kid’s movie. The same caustic energy, however, had not been abated, rather it had met with temperance and a more considered approach to craft that opened the Bad Seeds up to a wider audience.
Looking back, it would seem that The Boatman’s Call was not the shocking sombre style change that many critics heralded it as. The album now resides as the flower of a predestined future, seeded by the internal marriage of Cave’s sincerity, unfettered candour and the craft of the Bad Seeds themselves.
The production and arrangements are sparse and unassuming, offering the perfect pillow-propped platform for Cave’s dreamy wordplay. There is not much to report in terms of soundscape and on this instance, that is a glowing appraisal.
From start to finish the record is a sonic transfiguration of desolation and discerning into the humanised beauty of shared experience. It was an album that recalibrated public perception of the spookiest man in music and it was done with such lack of conceit that it proved absolutely seamless. Rarely has a masterpiece ever been so humble.