The Ship Song (N Cave) – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 1990
Nick Cave was born at Warracknabeal in country Victoria in 1957 to schoolteacher parents, who encouraged him to embrace language and literature, the family moved to Wangaratta and young Nick became fascinated with a local hero, the infamous bushranger Ned Kelly. He was expelled from high school and his parents sent him to board at Caulfield Grammar School (Melb) where he dabbled in art and music ultimately forming his first band, the new wave Boys Next Door.
Cave’s father died in a motor accident in 1978 and this deeply affected him, he was an enfant terrible and petty criminality and experimentation with drugs ensued, his band’s performances were uninhibited, profane and often deemed offensive, they decided to head for London in the early 1980’s. The band emerged as the Birthday Party, a nihilistic and deranged ensemble functioning somewhere between punk and goth, who were famously discordant and morbidly fascinating, they took the single Release the Bats to the top of the UK independent charts, decamped to Berlin, and while there morphed into the Bad Seeds, who became an integral part of Cave’s future musical journey.
In 1986 Cave was arrested for heroin possession in New York, and a week later was robbed at gunpoint in Los Angeles trying to score, he was consuming industrial quantities of alcohol and drugs, but his output remained prolific, although uneven in quality.
In 1989 Nick Cave emerged from rehab but he was still physically weak, he had relocated to Sao Paulo (Brazil) to live with Viviane Carneiro the mother of his son Luke, the Bad Seeds joined him, and they began to record the album The Good Son, at the Cardan Studios.
This album was to be something of a watermark for Cave as he explored more sensitive, tender, and introspective musical styles different from the blood-and-guts, hell, and damnation Gothic genre, for which he had become known, with his previous album, Your Funeral, My Trial.
The Ship Song is a beautiful piano-based love ballad, Cave’s vocals are emotional but not overwrought, the Bad Seeds backing simultaneously reveals a powerful intensity and fragile beauty, Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey and Kid Congo Powers rendered solid, understated vocal support.
Lyrically Cave delivered a moving, literate, and sexy paean to obsessive romantic love and devotion, he captured the vulnerability and fragility of human relationships “We talk about it all night long/We define our moral ground/But when I crawl into your arms/Everything comes tumbling down”. Metaphorically Cave dramatically embodied the act of passionate consummation of desire in the burning down of bridges, navigating emotional currents like sailing ships, and exploring the mystery in the DNA of every intensely personal relationship.
Ultimately Cave acknowledged that obsessive love cannot be sustained, metaphorically he alluded to the waxen-winged Icarus flying too close to the Sun and crashing to Earth, in the same way that obsessive love will wither and die.
The promo clip is an elegant and restrained rendition of the song by Cave with backing singers Bargeld, Harvey and Powers lending a quiet reverence to the performance, Cave is seated at the piano, sartorially dressed in a pearl grey three-piece suit and tie, bathed in purple light, accompanied at times by several young children who bring a playful touch to proceedings, subtle xylophone and organ flourishes bring this tender love ballad to a lush denouement.
This song and the album from which it was lifted however did not chart well, failing to make top 40 status here or overseas, however APRA had no hesitation in justifiably including The Ship Song in the list of the top thirty Best Australian songs of the period 1926-2001, many cover versions exist, most notably by Pearl Jam, Crowded House, Concrete Blonde, and local Melbourne crooner Denis Walter.