PERMANENT RECORDS: THE STARRY HEAVENS ABOVE ME, THE MORAL
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change. It has since been expanded as a concept, as Neal Shaffer takes on a study of album covers over at Leftwich. (I don't know why I link to them still. They're both pussies who couldn't hack it. Neither has updated the feature in a century!)
15. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - THE BOATMAN'S CALL (1997)
Personnel: Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Conway Savage, Martyn P. Casey, Jim Sclavunos, Warren Ellis
Producers: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Flood / Label: Mute
It's only by some weird coincidence that today is Nick Cave's 49th birthday. I chose this record last week when I chose the Joy Division, and I had no idea dates were going to converge like this. It's a fitting moment of kismet, though, because The Boatman's Call marks a signal shift in the Bad Seeds repertoire, a move from the blood and thunder of yesterday to something that thunders in its capacity for reserve.
I didn't understand The Boatman's Call at first. I was used to the raucous Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, having come to them around the time of Henry's Dream, drawn in by the love song "Straight to You." I dug its declarative statements. Cave was like some kind of pool hall knight templar. His swearing his allegiance of love struck me as a new and infectious strain of black-pantsed chivalry. Once I educated myself to more Bad Seeds, I saw how far it extended. Nick Cave had invented his own kingdom, a Southern Gothic film noir full of murder, sex, and colorful characters. He was neither above nor outside the swampy narratives, he was up to his neck in them. Musically, the Bad Seeds played like rock 'n' roll was gang warfare. For every hack and slash in Cave's lyrics, the boys in the band would match it with a stab of the guitar, a slice across the drums, the violin screaming like a cut throat. They would get loud, out of control, the murderous kangaroo court of Fritz Lang's M descending on each song as if it were a child molester needing to be snuffed out.
The Boatman's Call isn't like that.
The Boatman's Call is hushed and contemplative. Its two main themes were laid out on its advance single, the immediately brilliant "Into My Arms": God's love and human love. And how they entwine. I remember "Into My Arms" coming out, and it was unanimously loved, even by me. It's a song that gets better with age, too. I understand it more now as age pushes me on. Absolutes are a little harder the older I get. My hair should be graying to match my insides. Nothing is quite as clear as it was when I was just a wee lad. The Almighty is no exception. "Into My Arms" expresses doubt, and the desire to have the absolute ring true. It's a love song for agnostics, its famous opening line, "I don't believe in an interventionist God," being the statement of a man who isn't sure he believes but wants to.
What has prompted this soul searching? A woman, naturally. Someone who makes a man question his belief system. Someone he believes in so much it makes him want to have faith everything else and everything more, if for not other reason but to preserve this affection. There is even a wonderful blurring in the final verse: "But I believe in Love/ And I know that you do too/ And I believe in some kind of path/ That we can walk down, me and you/ So keep your candles burning/ And make her journey bright and pure." It's almost a Hemingway-esque juggling of pronouns, the way Papa drops speech signifiers in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" so the reader has to stop and ponder who is saying what, and how the choice affects the meaning. When Nick Cave goes from "you" to "her," it brings pause. Who was the "you"? Was it God, was it the girl? It's marvelous!
After this lead-in, though, I was nonplussed by the rest of The Boatman's Call. On the heels of the stabby-stab Bad Seeds of Murder Ballads, what was this record of piano-based ballads? The twelve tracks sound like gospels recorded on sleeping pills. It's the end of the night and Nick Cave is blitzed and they can't get him to leave the bar, he just hangs out banging the keys and wailing at the world. What the hell?
I'm not sure how much longer it took me to get it. A shift in my own thinking was required to understand that Cave was moving on, that Murder Ballads had effectively killed off that side of his career. I needed to wallow myself to help me understand what he was wallowing in.
That came in the form of a break-up. A relationship had gone on the skids, and for some reason, a cassette of The Boatman's Call that had been made for me by no less than Paul Pope found its way back into my car. I can't explain how it happened, but it was the perfectly right time for me to hear it again. It was exactly what I had needed.
The reason for the doubt, for the questioning, and for the resulting insistence on a larger truth is that The Boatman's Call is an album about being dumped. The songs are about being in love, but that love failing you. It's about not wanting to let it go, because if you do, there will be nothing left to stand on. It's of no less importance than a man's belief in a Supreme Being. If the heart can fail, than God is dead, and then what do I have? A cruel and fickle world? Myself, "this useless old fucker"?
I can't say for sure if Nick Cave was in a lovelorn gutter at the time of writing the record. The rumors were that he was. It has been alleged the PJ Harvey was the inspiration for cuts like "West Country Girl," "Black Hair," and "Green Eyes." Having come together to record "Henry Lee" on Murder Ballads, a torrid affair had started, the passion displayed in the video for that song (essentially, one long make-out session, the kisses pouring out even when their lips aren't locked) was not faked, but real. She broke his heart, and The Boatman's Call was Nick getting over it. Given that Cave's marriage had also ended in the midst of all this, other songs like "Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?" and "People Ain't No Good" may not be talking about marriage in a figurative sense.
If you want proof of the darkness, the telegraphing of the hurt, you don't have to go that much farther into the disc. Track 2 is "Lime-Tree Arbor," and it swings to the other side. "The boatman calls from the lake," it begins, and though he is to take the lovers to a natural paradise (or is it supernatural?), the boatman is also the classic symbol of death. Though they begin in tranquil weather, walking among the trees, the climate grows darker, and though they manage to maintain for this song (the chorus is "Through every word that I speak/ And every thing I know/ There is a hand that protects me/ And I do love her so"), there is a feeling of melancholy that hangs over it all, and a similar onslaught of weather is going to prove to be their downfall on the next track.
"People Ain't No Good" makes no attempt to hide its cynicism. The lime trees have been replaced with cherry blossoms, it's springtime and two lovers are married. But then one chorus of "people they ain't no good" and we go to winter. The trees are bare, and though there is a suggestion that the couple has tried to stand together against these rotten others, the metaphor of the woman trying to protect herself from the storm by drawing " the curtains made out of her wedding veils" is ambiguous. The marriage could be the shield, but the removal of the veil and using it to block out trouble could also be seen as the wife drawing a line between herself and her husband. The bridge definitely suggests that the love has died, and Cave is giving instructions for its funeral:
"To our love send a dozen white lilies
To our love send a coffin of wood
To our love let all the pink-eyed pigeons coo
That people they just ain't no good
To our love send back all the letters
To our love a valentine of blood
To our love let all the jilted lovers cry
That people they just ain't no good"
On the next couple of songs, Cave gets deeper into the mingling of the heavens and the heart. "Brompton Oratory" draws in images of Christ's tomb and suggests the hole left by a lover now gone has more power to lay waste to his soul than any god or devil. It's desolate stuff. On "There is a Kingdom," no bones are made about love and divinity being one in the same, of a woman being God made flesh on Earth. Yet, Cave continues the set-it-up-and-knock-it-down structure. In the first verse, she is an active power, and in the second, gone: "This day so sweet, it will never come again." There is comfort for his soul in "(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?" but it marks the midway point on the album, and the tenor changes from there. The song lets us rediscover love so that we might lose it again.
After "(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?", The Boatman's Call gets more specific. These are the songs that are often argued to be about the specific people. "Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?" is interpreted as being about his ex-wife because she is Brazilian, and it starts with the lines, "I remember a girl so very well/ The carnival drums all mad in the air." It starts with passion that catches them up in its whirlwind ("going 'round and around to nowhere") but soon gets nasty ("the kitten that padded and purred on my lap/ now swipes at my face with the paw of a bear"). They end with nothing to say, with a concern for what this all might do to their child, but with no option, with nothing left to hope for, only the question of "O where do we go now but nowhere?"
Even still, he's not willing to accept that it wasn't worth it, to give up the love he felt. As the song ends, he says straight out that if he could do it all over, he'd head straight back to the beginning. If he completely gives up on love, then there would be nothing left. He certainly couldn't write "West Country Girl," a long list of details about a woman whom he adores. The lyrics show he still gives himself over completely to romance. He knows the risk, and he'll take it. He tells of her voice that "has been poured/ Into my human heart and filled me/ With love, up to the brim, and killed me/ And rebuilt me back anew." It's an existential crisis of love, fetishistic in its detail. The rebuilding is taken on faith, but is he a better man, or just different? Many of those details surface again on "Black Hair" and "Green Eyes," suggesting quite clearly that they are about the same woman. So also returns the wrestling with the finite nature of what should be infinite. On "Green Eyes," the closing song and the one where he calls himself a useless old fucker (while also referring to her "twinkling cunt"), he says straight out that he doesn't care if he gets hurt, but if we hearken back to "Black Hair," we know it's already over. "The smell of her black hair/ Upon my pillow/ Where her head and all its/ Black hair did rest/ Today she took a train to the West."
It's after the west country girl has gotten on the train that we get the two songs where Cave allows himself a little anger, where he lashes out at both the eternal God and eternal love ("Idiot Prayer" and "Far From Me"), but it's "Green Eyes" that we are left with, and on "Green Eyes," we are told that he will just get back into it again. If there is anything truly eternal about these things, it's that we will never be over them, and we will embrace their damage over and over. As Cave sings in "Lime-Tree Arbor," "There will always be suffering/ It flows through life like water"
The Boatman's Call runs the classic course of post-relationship grief. It questions, it reminisces, it turns inward for the blame, turns outward, resurges, grows angry, and then capitulates. We don't really heal, we just pick ourselves up and try again, because if we can't believe there is something more out there, then what do we have? The "Lime-Tree Arbor" quote about suffering continues, after all, with the lines, "She puts her hand over mine/ Down in the lime-tree arbor." With our acceptance that there is suffering in our earthly Eden, we also maintain the hope that there will be some comfort.
Amazing how something I didn't understand when I first tried it has come to mean so much. Perhaps why it was so easy to miss was that The Boatman's Call is so consistent in tone and theme, it could be misconstrued as single-minded. The thing that you realize, though, when you are feeling it as it is intended, as you go through it yourself, is that it's a state that lingers, a mood that needs to be poured over and dissected. If you don't dive all the way down in the water, you can't have the satisfaction of breaking through the surface again. Granted, you could never come up for air and you could drown, but you can't blame Nick Cave. He's lowered the rope and is ready to pull you up.
NOTABLE B-SIDE: "Little Empty Boat" was one of the flips to "Into My Arms," and I'd argue it's the bridge between Old School and New School Bad Seeds. Slightly up-tempo from The Boatman's Call, it has the anger and bitterness absent in the rest of the album. Anchored by a ghostly piano riff and an odd noise that almost sounds like a razor being sharpened on a strap, "Little Empty Boat" is a man wrestling with himself at a party, being chatted up by a woman he knows he shouldn't go to, but who he is having a hard time turning down. "That grave you dug between your legs is hard to resist," he says, by way of explanation. It could easily be a song about a man broken by love, who now finds his existence hollow. He is the little empty boat. Or his heart is. Or it's even a metaphor for impotence ("My little boat is empty it won't go/ And my oar is broken, it don't row row row"). God plays into it, but he may be gone, too. "I am the resurrection, baby," Cave says. When the individual only has himself left, everything is up for questioning. "I respect your beliefs, girl/ I consider you a friend/ But I've already been born once/ And I don't need to be born again." And yet, for all his protests, in the end, surrender: "Give to God what is God's and give the rest to me/ Tell our gracious host to fuck himself, it's time for us to leave." There is an "us." The tune is like a dark invocation, and one of those B-sides it's hard to believe was let go on an EP. The whole "Into My Arms" single is worth digging up. The second B is "Right Now I'm A-Roaming," a happier song, easily interpreted as the morning after "Little Empty Boat," or at least the letting go, finding redemption and happiness, returning to shore.
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