Nick Cave's work has always been deliciously grim. From his chaotic beginnings 17 years ago in the Birthday Party (a band whose albums were re-released last month on the Thirsty Ear label), the godfather of goth rock has mined the rich ore of blues, folk and pop and fashioned it into apocalyptic rockers and seductive dirges. The result sounds like the orgiastic love-child of Jim Morrison, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Edgar Allen Poe.
The Australian dean of despondency isn't doing any screamin' on his latest endeavor, "The Boatman's Call." The album maintains the air of mellow melancholia that has long loomed large in his work, but here it threatens to consume it. "The Boatman's Call" is even more consistent in its dolorous drone than was last year's aptly named "Murder Ballads," which was as homogeneous musically as it was thematically. Most of the songs stand well on their own, but taken together, unrelieved by the pounding shouters that punctuated Cave's previous discs, they dissolve into a threnodic torpor.
This low-key, stripped-down sound throws the limelight onto Cave's lyrics, which are stronger and fresher than ever before. The grand tradition of English balladry aside, crises of love and faith make for more resonant songs than does senseless bloodletting, and Cave seems to be in the process of uncovering the roots of his macabre obsessions and revealing more of himself along the way. His language is as packed with biblical imagery as ever, but it seems more honest than his earlier intoxicating jaunts through the valley of the shadow of death.
In the throbbing folk song "West Country Girl," Cave sings the praises of a ghoulish gal who "comes from the West Country, where the birds sing bass." In "Idiot Prayer," he asks a dead lover, "Is heaven just for victims, dear, where only those in pain go?" And in the tender, mellifluous love song "Into My Arms," Cave croons, "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/Not to touch a hair on your head/Leave you as you are/If he felt he had to direct you/Then direct you into my arms."
"We're crossing cold neurotic sea," he murmurs in
"Far From Me," and monotonous as it sometimes is,
the murky water below conceals riches that
reward the voyage.