Has it been 20 years already? A retrospective on Nick Cave’s dark theological hymns in The Boatman’s Call

Disarmingly earnest and boldly unpredictable, The Boatman’s Call established a body of work so compelling it brought a mass audience to Nick Cave’s creative vision on the artist’s own terms.

Prior to the album’s 1997 release he had steadily forged an identity as a cult musical figure, but in lieu of all which had come before, Cave’s tenth LP elevated his status as a songwriter to another level entirely.

The sombre album conferred the former Melbournian with one of his greatest critical and commercial benchmarks. With time, The Boatman’s Call has crystallised into Cave’s definitive work.

the boatman's call nick cave and the bad seeds

In the apocalyptic aftermath of addiction and failed relationships, aphorisms of love and faith in The Boatman’s Call were a therapeutic outcry for Nick Cave.

Scantly more than a year before Murder Ballads had revelled in self-parody. Coalesced in a grotesquery of bloodthirsty narratives, its fifth track Where the Wild Roses Grow, a duet with pop starlet Kylie Minogue, provided the 39-year-old Cave with an unlikely Top 40 hit.

No sooner had Cave retired the blood splattering pulp outlaw Stagger Lee, the mass murdering teen Loretta and the rest of his gruesome dramatis personae, did he emerge with unprecedented sensitivity and poetic command.

Less a calculated or clever statement, his music directly conveys a turbulent state of mind. He attacks lofty issues of love and faith in all their glorious complexity, launching into grandiose confessions of devotion while withering contractions of doubt are parcelled in every direction. With grim abandonment, a songwriter exposes his vulnerabilities.

A thematic romance courses throughout the album. But less conventionally, The Boatman’s Call is loaded with twisted theological dialogue. Lovelorn narratives intermingle with Cave’s tangled relationship with a Christian conception of God.

A former Anglican altar boy at Wangaratta Cathedral in rural Victoria, Cave begun reading the bible in his twenties. At the peak of his tenure as a hell-raising frontman and heroin-addled junkie, the young artist became engrossed with what he terms Christianity’s “brutal prose”.

In his view, these ancient texts teemed with violence, exultation, sexuality and innuendo. Increasingly in the 90s Cave would discuss that, despite his loggerheads with faith, he had always felt a pervasive feeling that some kind of god-like presence was shadowing his life.

In a lecture given by Cave on September 1999 to those attending The Vienna Poetry Festival, he spoke candidly about the source of his creative drive.

“A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was nineteen years old,” he candidly revealed. “The way I learned to fill this hole, this void, was to write… to write allowed me direct access to my imagination, to inspiration and ultimately to God. I found through the use of language, that I wrote God into existence… Actualising of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist.”

No more is this literary deity actualised than with The Boatman’s Call. The LP opens with Cave’s most compelling lyricism. “I don’t believe in an interventionist god” he declares, the low-end rumble of a gently commanding baritone concurrently conveys both frailty and warm intimacy. This opening track casts Cave as a wearied poet, his aphorisms of love and uncertainty conveying a brutal worldview.

Far from evangelical, the foundation of Cave’s religious entanglement is doubt. Cave’s god, if he exists, sits detached beyond contact, questioning, and accountability.

A romantic counterpoint of Into My Arms, the idyllic Lime Tree Arbour equally enraptures. Two lovers place hands upon one another in a shaded lakeside retreat. “The Boatman” beckons from the water. His typified barrage of sound and literary narrative is honed to near perfection, his voice instilling his work with all the intent and feeling of his troubled state of mind.

The album nearly recites scripture verbatim with Brompton Oratory, but despite the pious overtones Cave’s vocals leak lustily. Shifting between ambiguities, a reading of devotional faith could just as readily be substituted with the idea of a lover or intravenous drug. (Are You) the One I’ve Been Waiting For? continues to invert spiritual intimations, conflating Jesus Christ with an object of desire.

The death row confessional of Idiot Prayer relays a twisted interior monologue. The needling track goads and questions whether there’s a heaven above. It plays out as series of vitriolic and muttered curses as much a begrudging plea. “Hallelujah” Cave spits.

There is a Kingdom revisits this theological terrain while unleashing the full backing of The Bad Seeds and softly echoing the tension and release of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. No song surmises Cave’s wretched solipsism like the anthemic disappointment of People Ain’t No Good. In an interview with Mojo in 1997 Cave summed up the track as a statement that, despite all their merits, people ultimately aren’t much help to one another.

As much as The Boatman’s Call draws from the theology of Christian faith so too does it draw from the mythology of Cave’s own recent past. As focal point for Cave’s emotional projections, female characters are equally serenaded and subjected to brutal id. Songwriters will often amalgamate two or six different lovers, but here Cave subverts this convention by making little attempt to bury his recent past.

The singer delivers tellingly detailed recollections of a fleeting romance with PJ Harvey and a longer, but equally tumultuous, involvement with Brazilian journalist Viviane Carneiro.

Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere and Far From Me have been thought to closely recollect Cave’s divorce from Carneiro. However, the poetic rendition of Cave’s own personal experiences raises itself to grander heights of dramatic fiction. Fatherhood also figures into this unconventional narrative of romance. The birth of son Luke saw Cave become more connected with his own father, who had died in a car accident in 1978 while Cave was sequestered in St Kilda police lockup.

West Country Girl, Black Hair and Green Eyes are striking due to their visually descriptive profiling of Polly Harvey. However, it’s just as likely that the artist is breathing life into a fictitious abstraction. Green Eyes merges Harvey with Tori Amos, irrelevantly turning the album’s earnest pathos on its head.

The final track closes with weird overdubs, flamenco guitar, and lecherous perversity. As he finishes chronicling his crumbling state of affairs, Cave mines his dark humour. Green Eyes’ mirthful oddness farewells the audience, but perhaps also concludes Cave’s identification with the persona of a solemn and misanthropic loner.

The Boatman’s Call may question the divine, but ultimately it embraces an earthly love. Within the fantasy of the central narratives, Cave’s world sits cloaked transience and uncertainty. Love as well as faith linger and surge forth, but just as quickly disintegrate.

Short-lived as they may be, for Cave it’s through these fleeting moments that we find salvation.