Music Features

A Third Round of Reintroductions For Nick Cave #2 — The Boatman’s Call & No More Shall We Part

"I don't believe in an interventionist god."

The merriment and seriousness of Nick Cave’s death scenarios in Murder Ballads were followed by The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part, both of which play as personal and delicate by comparison.  The Boatman’s Call, in particular, almost seems like a solo effort as The Bad Seeds, violinist Warren Ellis now a full-fledged member of the group, keep themselves subtle and reserved.  The cold image of Cave on the cover, alone, states very directly whom this album is really all about. 

“The themes are very much intensely personal I suppose you could say" ,Mick Harvey explains during his segment of The Boatman’s Call interview.  “And, as a consequence of that, I think Nick felt that he really wanted to have control over more aspects of how the music was — and understandably, too, I have no problem with it.”

The first time I heard The Boatman’s Call it required many, many listens in order to really get a better sense of what’s going on.  Cave’s piano-laden and introspective songs regarding his familiar themes of love and loss (Into My Arms, (Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?, Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?) and then his religious offerings (There Is A Kingdom, Idiot’s Prayer) are entirely on the surface, his very soft and beautifully sad tone rarely lifted up from the depths of its own welling tears.  The intensity of Cave’s words next to the lightness of the playing sinks in eventually and, once it does, it’s captivating.  Into My Arms is a gorgeous introduction, a love song that’s both honest and heartfelt, free of any sentimentality or cheesy device typically meant to separate women from their undergarments. 

Recorded at Abbey Road in its one-room studio, The Boatman’s Call was the product of songs Cave had begun to write before Murder Ballads had been finished.  The songs were recorded live without many takes, the band’s usual ensemble-level role taken down to their barest essentials.  Lime Tree Arbour, for instance, might be one of the few songs in the album that actually utilizes a pure groove, Martyn Casey’s bass lines running alongside Cave as almost co-conspirator.  Tommy Wydler, too, as the band’s drummer takes a less subtle role, but his beats remain simple throughout.

The album is mostly told through ballads, the slow pace of People Ain’t No Good, or the tragic honesty of Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere? maintain this almost seasick trudge that forces you to listen and consider what the man says.  Other instances on The Boatman’s Call, such as Brompton Oratory, allow you to enjoy the music a little more, the kitschy keyboard-generated beat and organ treatments taking cues from ceremonial hymns or Christian ritual.

Ellis features prominently in violin-wound folk-based West Country Girl, a song apparently about PJ Harvey (“The crooked smile and her heart-shaped face…”).  West Country Girl has a persistent kick drum powering its tale, the sound more severe and based in the sort of narrative backdrop as Do You Love Me?. 

For the reissue, The Boatman’s Call features an argumentative and dire song called Little Empty Boat, a fascinating confrontation with strange muted keys being pushed into the piano though emitting no real notes.  The tension is mostly word-based, but The Bad Seeds push it with their distinct brand of layered repetition that seems like it’s going to explode, but never quite gets there. 

Right Now I’m A-Roaming might be the most lighthearted song on the reissue, just Cave listing an amusing array of things he’s going to do when he gets home.  There’s also an interesting “band version” of Black Hair and the songs Come Into My Sleep and Babe, I Got You Bad, both take on somewhat of 60s pop approach.  The latter almost evokes Bob Dylan.  You could say, with these last four additional B-sides, the album receives somewhat of a breather from its seriousness.

No More Shall We Part emerged four years after The Boatman’s Call, a “best of” compilation issued during the band’s hiatus.  Not so much a deviation from the more personal material that comprised most of The Boatman’s Call, No More Shall We Part brought The Bad Seeds back into significance as arrangers, performers and contributors.  From the onset of As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, you can already hear the band thickly present amidst Cave’s emotional narrative.

The video for As I Sat Sadly By Her Side has Cave situated in a series of reflections with projected backdrops of historical occurrences and natural conflicts playing while he sings, a concept that might seem overdone and a little simple, but it works well with the song.  This could just be that Cave’s face is capable of twisting into the physical evidence of his passion and that the song’s dramatic moments perfectly coincide with space shuttles, Nazis and nuclear explosions.  This video is discussed a little bit in the album’s documentary, the video’s director, John Hillcoat, pointing out Cave’s want of stock footage to be used.

To me, the video is relevant to the album because the personality Cave exudes seems to illustrate much of No More Shall We Part, not only as the consummate proprietor of lyrical brilliance, but as a true singer.  Inasmuch as Cave had up to this point been a vocalist for The Bad Seeds, a song like No More Shall We Part has him carrying his voice like a perfectly devised instrument.  Cave’s passion resonates almost to the point of surpassing his stories, tracks like Love Letter, God Is In The House and The Sorrowful Wife necessitating elongated melodies and dramatically coaxed notes.

Ellis provides this entrancing violin that escalates the lovely Hallelujah.  Enlisting the aid of the McGarrigle sisters, a Canadian folk act, whatever feminine vocal grace Murder Ballads had utilized and achieved was brought back into the dynamic.  Hallelujah winds up one of the album’s best and most memorable moments.  The tension and anxiety of Oh My Lord also stands out, its desperate repetition of “Oh, Lord… Oh, My Lord” enough to conjure a confused array of reactions from its listener. 

Two of the album’s four B-sides, Good Good Day and Little Janey’s Gone, were smartly left off the original album.  Good Good Day has enough abrasive tone and energy to be more distracting than complimentary and Little Janey’s Gone seems unfinished next to the rich and well-layered construction of the rest of the album.  The other two, Grief Came Riding and Bless His Ever Loving Heart, relate more to the actual work.  Also included are other versions of Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow, We Came Along The Road, God Is In The House and No More Shall We Part dubbed “Westside Sessions.”    

As reissues go, Mute’s ongoing celebration of Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds is warranted, stunning and very well conceived.  For fans, the videos and extras are excellent, interesting and informative.  Anyone wanting to learn about Cave has no shortage of material to sort through, the liner notes even providing ample perspective from band members and Cave alike.  Of course, extras or not, the phase of Cave’s development documented in Let Love In, Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part sees an artist continually at odds with categorization or complacency.  Ultimately, everything you need to know, is in the music.