Al’s Top 30 Albums Of All Time – No. 19

19. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call (1997)


boatmans call

In 1982, with his genuinely intimidating new-wave band The Birthday Party, Cave wrote and screeched the following lyric; he was probably on stage in nothing more than a pair of jeans, just about to belabour a paying punter with his mic stand as he did so:

Sex horror sex bat sex sex horror sex vampire
Sex bat horror vampire sex
Cool machine
Horror bat. bite!
Cool machine. bite!
Sex vampire. bite!

In 1997, on The Boatman’s Call, he is, in a parallel universe, recognized as the finest lounge singer to have ever lived and plays 200 nights a year in Las Vegas. He drinks expensive whisky with the ghosts of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and wears a suit that cost five thousand pounds. He sits at his piano with a cigarette smouldering in the ashtray and opens the show, and this album, with the following lines, which he croons with a voice as deep and dark as mahogany:

I don’t believe in an interventionist God,
But I know darling that you do,
But if I did I would kneel down and ask him
Not to intervene when it came to you.

Even over the course of fifteen years, that is one hell of a transition. It was a gradual thing; on the early Bad Seeds albums, amongst the hell fire and brimstone there would always be one or two songs where you would properly pick the lyric out and realise how head-spinningly brilliant it was. The title track of Your Funeral, My Trial, The Mercy Seat off Tender Prey, which reads more like a Shakespearean monologue than a song, and Sorrow’s Child off The Good Son, the album of orchestral piano ballads which is the prototype for The Boatman’s Call.

It is effectively a Nick Cave solo album about the break-up of two relationships, featuring the best collection of lyrics ever committed to tape. As with three of the godfathers of the doomed romantic ballad, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Johnny Cash, the songs are dominated by themes of Love, Death and God. The imagery is unbelievably vivid; in Brompton Oratory for example, he sings of how his taking of Holy Communion is tarnished by the smell of his lover on his hands as he drinks the wine. In the impossibly sombre Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere, the following verse:

The kitten that padded and purred on my lap,
Now swipes at my face with the paw of a bear
I turn the other cheek and you lay into that,
O where do we go now but nowhere

Words that are the equal of anything in the very best literature, let alone pop music.
The album’s best track and centrepiece is Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For, a song of uncertainty and anticipation set to a minor chord piano sequence that features an incredible moment where the end of verse refrain blooms into a truly beautiful middle eight. When he sings the line “The stars will explode in the sky, but they don’t do they?” It is the only time his voice struggles on the entire record, yet all the more bewitching for it. The Bad Seeds are unintrusive throughout, just there to add soft rhythms and atmosphere to the staunchly black and white palette. The only true band performance is on West Country Girl, where low bass rumbles and gypsy violins decorate the story of his romance with Polly Harvey.

This album would have flown in to my top ten but for the disastrous final track, Green Eyes, which in my opinion is the worst Cave song of all-time. It seems to be aiming for a self-parody schtick in order to lighten the atmosphere, something like The Piano Has Been Drinking by Tom Waits. Cave however, is not a natural raconteur like Waits, and it is a colossal error of judgement for this song to be included. It’s not a major problem, though, as CD/MP3 technology can be used to edit it out, and we are left with a wonderful set of wine-sodden, tear-sodden lullabies, that tell us through all these beautiful words, that love may ruin lives, may rip your heart to shreds and fuck you up to the point of no return. But at the end of the day, we all need it.

Best Tracks: Into My Arms, Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For, Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere.

Best Moment: The afore-mentioned middle eight in Are You The One… a truly beautiful passage of music.

Like This? Try: In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning by Frank Sinatra (1954)


profile b and wAllen Miles is 31 years old and lives in Hull. He is married and has a 2 year-old daughter who is into Queens Of The Stone Age. He is a staunch supporter of Sheffield Wednesday FC and drinks far too much wine. He spends most of his spare time watching old football videos on youtube and watching 1940s film noir. He is the author of 18 Days, which is widely recognized to be the best book ever written. It is available here.