It Was a Dark and Holy Night

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
The Boatman's Call
(Warner Bros.)

Religion has always had its place in rock 'n' roll, appropriately enough for the devil's music (see: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis during his gospel days, Bob Dylan when he wasn't feeling so Jewish); modern rockers now tend to play it for grins, from the faux proselytizing of Reverend Horton Heat to the gotcha-sacrilege of "Antichrist Superstar" Marilyn Manson. But few rock artists constantly focus their gaze on Christianity with as much intensity as Australian singer Nick Cave, a man who wrestles with God and the devil more often than Faust. From the tongue-in-cheek agonies about good, evil and life everlasting on 1984's From Her to Eternity through 1990's The Good Son, where he transformed the parable of the Prodigal Son into goth-rock opera, Cave has long shown he's willing to mix a little old-time religion in with the rock; he may dress it up as goth or dress it down as Vegas kitsch, but it has long been his cross to bear.

The Boatman's Call is Cave's most "devout" album yet--unfortunately, it's also his dullest. Like last year's Murder Ballads, a recording devoted entirely to gory, folksy tales about brutal death, The Boatman's Call is a one-trick pony--and, in fact, it picks up exactly where the last album left off, at the old Dylan song "Death Is Not the End." That slow ballad was a prayer for Christian forgiveness and resurrection for the murdered (and, perhaps, the murderers). The dozen songs on the new recording are equally maudlin spirituals: snail's-pace hymnals full of organ and Biblical buzz words.

It's a pose, of course--but an awfully straight-faced one: Cave is no longer the twisted blend of Sid Vicious and Elvis, a Robert Johnson-obsessed Aussie whose version of the blues has always, 'til now, retained traces of his fucked-up, noise-punk band the Birthday Party. Nowadays, he sees himself as a reinterpreter of the Bible, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily a believer; The Boatman's Call even begins with the awkward lyric "I don't believe in an interventionist God/But I know, darling, you do." As that sentiment indicates, Cave questions God at every turn, in language that God (or at least His devout followers) can understand.

Thus The Boatman's Call is full of sententious organ, poky folk songs and stolen imagery such as "turn the other cheek" and "on the wings of a dove." But as pious as the songs sound, their conclusions are on the secular side. On "People Ain't No Good," for example, Cave quite simply comes to that gloomy conclusion. "Idiot's Prayer" explores two of his favorite subjects: people who murder those they love and the possibility of redemption for evildoers. "Is Heaven just for victims, dear?" asks a murderer on his way to the scaffold. "Where only those in pain go? Well, it takes two to tango."

The best songs here are the least religious--the spooky and evocative "Lime Tree Arbour" and "West Country Girl." "Green Eyes" is a foul-mouthed number that turns on such words as cunt and fucker; it's like a psalm sung by a man with Tourette's syndrome. That final number shows Cave's hand, which is to turn the sacred into the profane in order to demonstrate just how little distance there is between the two. And although it's a stimulating idea, the reality of it is as boring as a long litany at a real service.

Cave's deep voice is, as usual, haunting and resonant, and the instrumentation and production (by Cave and U2 cohort Flood) are beautifully simple; but every track is burdened with a bunch of slow verses and increasingly sluggish tempos. The Boatman's Call lacks energy and dynamics: One longs desperately for Cave to reinject the gospel energy of "Mercy Seat" or even Murder Ballads' nastiest number, "O'Malley's Bar." Nick Cave needs to get out of the choir and back in the pulpit--or, better yet, out of the church altogether.

 
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