By 1997, Nick Cave had already traversed numerous guises. He’d been a noisy gutter poet with the Birthday Party, a gothic troubadour in his early solo work, a post-punk genius and, by the mid-1990s, a Springsteen-like figure whose own highway mythos sounded suited to a lane leading to Hell. Yet even by the artist’s own unpredictable standards, few could have anticipated him making a record like The Boatman’s Call. Prior to this, even Cave’s sweetest, most tranquil songs were infused with cynicism, irony and misery, but here is an album of rich, sonorous ballads, unvarnished and vulnerable. It added yet another wrinkle to Cave’s warped self-portrait, so naked as to be confounding in its clashing honesty.

The album opens with “Into My Arms,” which sports one of the greatest first lines to ever usher in an album: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God/ But I know, darling, that you do.” Cave’s wit is still present in the mouthful of a first line, but it nonetheless conveys a bracing sentiment, balancing twin impulses of apostasy and romantic longing that run through the album. “Into My Arms” mines Biblical imagery to make an agnostic’s prayer, a fervent plea to powers that may or may not exist to watch over a lover. It remains Cave’s most beautiful, stripped-down ballad, with nothing but a piano to shape the singer’s muted vocals as he intones to the heavens. Cave’s voice, heretofore filled with sinister menace, is now just somber, admitting weakness in the face of love.

This newfound warmth pervades much of the album. “Lime Tree Arbour” is a tranquil dedication of affection and trust in a partner that nakedly admits to reliance on someone else with lines like “There is a hand that protects me/ And I do love her so.” “Black Hair” is an ode to his lover’s raven locks, with “black hair” factoring into every line, the repetition oscillating between dedication to fixation as an accordion lends a moonlit swell to Cave’s intonations. “Green Eyes” homes in on another body part, with Cave plaintively begging, “So hold me and hold me, don’t tell me your name.” There’s a mournful, sea-shanty quality to the artist’s lovesick ballads, not entirely unlike Tom Waits’s own, and the unorthodox instrumentation that the Bad Seeds bring shows them evolving alongside Cave, modulating their intensity without sacrificing idiosyncrasy.

Yet for all the songs of devotion, there are just as many that drift through the sorrow of heartbreak, often invoking religion for both answers and distraction. “Brompton Oratory,” by contrast, finds Cave indulging his religious inclinations and doubt in equal measure, attending service in the cathedral but finding his mind drifting to the marble statues of apostles frozen away from the sin and temptation of the modern world. Far from feeling invigorated by religion, Cave confesses that he envies the stone images for their impassiveness, not only in terms of his spiritual need but in a hinted-at break-up that pervades the lonely searching of the LP. As Cave croons, an organ swells, a benediction to his doubting declamations. “People Ain’t No Good” puts a new face on Cave’s cynical humor, contrasting initially upbeat, romantic lyrics with the chorus containing the song’s title before drifting into breakup misery.

In retrospect, Cave’s balance of weariness and longing fits seamlessly within his overall body of work and the somber timbre of his voice. Having scored his most successful single in a collaboration with Kylie Minogue, he produced his most consistent LP in the wake of their breakup. It’s Cave’s version of Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, a dejected affair that strips away usual modes to reveal the torn, ragged heart beneath. As far and wide as Cave and his crew had traveled sonically over the years, somehow it was the bare bones eclecticism and raw emotion of The Boatman’s Call that most clearly informed Cave’s career afterward, culminating in his recent, tragic return to bared-soul intensity for Skeleton Tree.

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