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 a rehab facility in Weston-Super-Mare (UK) where he had seemingly kicked drugs and alcohol, but he was still physically weak, and his personal life was complex. In 1991 he would marry Vivian Carneiro, a Brazilian journalist (above) and they would have a son named Luke, in the same year Cave would also father another son named Jethro with Melbourne model Beau Lazenby (below), he would not personally meet Jethro until he was eight years old. Having relocated to Sao Paulo (Brazil) to live with Carneiro and Luke, the Bad Seeds joined him there, 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 Southern Gothic genre, for which he had become known, with his previous albums, Tender Prey, Your Funeral …My Trial, and the Firstborn Is Dead.The Ship Song is a gloriously reflective, 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 (below) 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 his relationship with Vivien Carneiro “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.
The opening chant is based loosely upon the African-American traditional song Another Man Done Gone, previously recorded by Odetta, and the Biblical story of Cain and Abel was also an influence with the lyrical reference to “ a tiller and he has a tiller’s hand” like Cain a farmer who feuds with and kills his brother. 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.
Cave summed up his feeling about the album and living and recording in Brazil thus:” I guess The Good Son is a reflection of the way I felt early on in Brazil. I was quite happy there. I was in love and the first year or two was good. The problem I found was … in order to survive you have to adopt their attitudes towards everything, which are kind of blinkered,” he and Carneiro would divorce in 1996.
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 vibraphone 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, but the original version still enjoys a cult-like following.