Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ ‘The Boatman’s Call’, released 20 years ago today, is the first of its kind, and maybe the last too

A slew of significant albums all came out in 1997 – Sam Walton is revisiting each one on its 20th anniversary

In October 1996, five months before ‘The Boatman’s Call’ was released, Nick Cave wrote his zinging “my muse is not a horse” open letter to MTV, in which he asked for his Best Male Artist nomination at the forthcoming MTV Europe Music Awards to be withdrawn. The letter thanked MTV for its support, but specifically requested that “any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies”. In an instant, Cave’s letter ended his relationship with a mainstream, commercial pop stardom that had grown from flirtatious around the time of 1994’s ‘Let Love In’ to downright ardent that year with the release of ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, his hit duet with Kylie Minogue.

‘The Boatman’s Call’ had already been completed by the time Cave received his nomination, and it’s understandable now why he was so keen for MTV et al to leave him alone: his tenth studio album is an unexpectedly intimate, personal record, full of transparently autobiographical songs about failure, doubt and crisis. Having recently ended a high-profile (if short-lived) relationship with PJ Harvey, and stripped himself of the theatricality and posturing that had defined his work to date – the kind that can handily mask true feelings or insecurities – one could imagine Cave being pre-emptively suspicious of any scrutiny of such a delicate collection of songs by the crass and nuance-free MTV-industrial complex.

But just like Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’, released the previous week, and even Eels’ Beautiful Freak from January, delicacy here is not to be confused with frailty. Indeed, while there’s resignation and cynicism in many of Cave’s lyrics here, there’s a self-confidence and resilience in the quietly muscular music: the gently propulsive bass playing on ‘Lime Tree Arbour’ and ‘Far From Me’, the warm organ swells on ‘There Is A Kingdom’ and, perhaps most arrestingly, Warren Ellis’ gorgeous fiddle parts that punctuate ‘Idiot Prayer’ and ‘West Country Girl’ all contribute to a feeling of the Bad Seeds closing ranks to defend their leader, offering a sort of protective shield around Cave’s troubles.

Cave’s songwriting, too – confident enough to open the album with a lyric as preposterous as “I do not believe in an interventionist god, but I know darling that you do” and to close it with a quotation of a 16th-century poet and smirking mention of a “twinkling cunt” – offers brooding strength. In almost an inversion of British music’s trend over the previous couple of years for cocksure songs becoming thinner on closer inspection, with repeat plays and longer distance ‘The Boatman’s Call’ only becomes more robust.

Nick Cave was largely detached from much of Britpop’s excess, deemed too gothic and perhaps a little over-serious to really become a member of the club. Nonetheless, the crossover success of his duet with Kylie wove him into the national music tapestry at a time when indie musicians were becoming household names and, in that way, he and the Bad Seeds weren’t entirely outside of the movement either. Accordingly, it’s easy to see ‘The Boatman’s Call’ as another 1997 album, along with Blur’s eponymous record from earlier in the year and Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point in July, that sought a conscious uncoupling of itself from its past. The difference here, however, is that ‘The Boatman’s Call’ feels less like reinvention, and more like retreat: this was Nick Cave’s naked album, capturing him at his most vulnerable, and in comparison with those other stylistic shifts of 1997, it’s alluringly raw.

That aesthetic wouldn’t last, though. While ‘The Boatman’s Call’ was the first Nick Cave album to deliberately reject awards-ceremony approval, it’s also the last on which he is truly himself: after this, Cave embarked on a run of LPs with both the Bad Seeds and Grinderman that are helmed by various personas – the gothic soothsayer, the ageing libidinous playboy or the damaged doom-mongering preacher – and are given more to storytelling than personal revelation. Only on last year’s grief-stricken ‘Skeleton Tree’ does the same tone reemerge, leaving it as a sort of companion piece to ‘The Boatman’s Call’ (albeit a more shattering one) and inadvertently framing the earlier album rather neatly for its 20th anniversary: for all Cave’s magical imagination, delivery and darkly grotesque sense of humour, it’s his moments of pure, poetic and heartbroken candour that really endure.

Also out this week in 1997:
U2 – ‘Pop’ (Island). Chart peak #1
Ben Folds Five – ‘Whatever & Ever Amen’ (Epic). Chart peak #30
Apollo 440 – ‘Electro Glide In Blue’ (Stealth Sonic). Chart peak #62
Veruca Salt – ‘Eight Arms To Hold You’ (Outpost Recordings). Chart peak #95

To read all the other entries in Sam’s Twenty Years Ago Today blog, click here.