First of all, the song.
Religion and sexuality. Nick Cave is an artist who fully understands the importance of a counterpoint. Sorry for this mantra, but without a strong counterpoint good art cannot exist, however much effort you put into it. You won’t find a much better example than the beautiful and sinister “Little Empty Boat”, a B-side that is greater than most artists’ best.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of this sort of analysis, but this will be an exception. First off, these lyrics are astonishing. Secondly, the song is stone-cold proof of Cave’s songwriting genius. Thirdly, this could be fun.
So off we go:
You found me at some party
You thought I’d understand
You barreled over to me
With a drink in each hand.
A girl. We all know her. Good Christian with a glass of tequila. Great songwriting should put you in the right mood from the very first line. The understated insanity of Cave’s piano line is good enough, but it’s the lyrical imagery that goes into your head like some seriously good drug.
I respect your beliefs, girl,
And I consider you a friend,
But I’ve already been born once,
I don’t wanna be born again.
Not a bad way to dismiss religion (I’d suggest remembering these lines and employing them when the time comes), but a situation when someone tries to convert you to some dodgy belief system is frankly annoying.
Your knowledge is impressive
And your argument is good,
But I am the resurrection, babe,
And you’re standing on my foot.
Two first lines are an effective way to kill someone with a good word, but it’s what follows that I find irresistible. You see, it’s not just the prospect of a girl taking you to bed to preach God. It’s also a terrific lyrical juxtaposition from Cave: ‘resurrection’ and ‘standing on my foot’. It’s what Robert Forster did in “You Can’t Say No Forever”: Yes my world’s tumbling down / stone by stone, to the ground / please take out the garbage. Anticlimax is a beautiful thing when used properly.
But my little boat is empty
It don’t go
And my oar is broken
It don’t row, row, row
Bad grammar. Who doesn’t love bad grammar used by an intelligent person?.. On a more serious note, though, the chorus provides great symbolism suggested by the title. The girl doesn’t move him sexually and he is not buying her phony religiosity. ‘Empty boat’ is a masterful representation of the feeling.
Your tiny little face
Keeps yapping in the gloom
Seven steps behind me
With your dustpan and broom
Verse two, and the imagery never lets go. ‘Dustpan and broom’ is another great example of a counterpoint, considering the subject matter of their ‘conversation’. In the meantime, don’t forget Warren Ellis’s looped violin which goes on and on and on until your sanity snaps.
I can’t help but imagine you
All postured and prone
But there’s a little guy on my shoulder
Says I should go home alone.
The girl won’t lay off, and his imagination is fired up. ‘Little guy on my shoulder’ is pure fucking genius. He is saying no.
But you keep leaning in on me
And you’re looking pretty pissed
That grave you’ve dug between your legs
Is hard to resist.
Well, if anything – it’s getting hotter. The party drags on, and the girl is drunk already. I mean, lines 3 and 4 are some of the most engrossing erotic imagery I’ve ever heard (some Austrian psychiatrist could excel here). It’s disturbing and addictive and electrifying and you know exactly what he is talking about. By this point, nobody speaks about religion anymore. Sexuality wins.
Give to God what belongs to God
And give the rest to me
Tell our gracious host to fuck himself
It’s time for us to leave.
Oh I do remember listening to this song for the first time 6 or 7 years ago. This was the verse that would not leave my head for days. Yes, sexuality won – and he will be going home with her (note the pronoun ‘us’). But it’s a version of her without religion that excites him. He ‘only’ wants the rest of her, and church stands in the way of lust. ‘Host’ here is both the host of the party and God, which I guess makes the f-word all the more disturbing.
We finish with frantic whispers. ‘Row… row… row’. So the boat does row in the end, and the song clanks and clatters and then slowly, uneasily bows out.
In a word, a classic. What a songwriter this guy is.