Shanties: 5 Narrative Songs About the Sea

I blame Gordon Lightfoot. Many songs incorporate aspects of storytelling but only a few are truly narrative, such that stripping away their music would leave a clear, functional story. And, for whatever reason, those stories tend to focus on the sea. The first, clearest example of this trend is Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which recounts the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald (though it should be noted that the titular wreck occurs in a lake rather than an ocean). Whether or not contemporary artists were directly inspired by “The Wreck”, the open water makes for a fruitful narrative setting as it pulls characters away from any distractions, leaving only the relationships at hand and an often-fatal conflict with the uncontrollable environment of the sea. So furl your sails and batten down your hatches; it’s getting choppy out here.

“Play Crack the Sky” by Brand New

We’ll start with the song that hews most closely to Lightfoot’s. “Play Crack the Sky” is a bare, acoustic affair whose lyrics, like “The Wreck”, lament the sinking of a ship. Commonly accepted wisdom says that Brand New’s Jesse Lacey took inspiration for his lyrics from the real life sinking of the Andrea Gail which was made famous by The Perfect Storm. But the pathos that Lacey and Co. are able to evoke far outstrips what George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg put onscreen in their tepidly received film, particularly with lyrics like “I wish for one more day to give my love and repay debts, but the morning finds our bodies washed up 30 miles west” and, more simply, “The water’s cold, so cold. Won’t have to fight for long.” That’s grim but, then again, this is a song about a shipwreck in which all hands are lost at sea, so I suppose it’s rather fitting in the end.

“The Wild Sea” by The Aquabats

Not all songs about the sea need to be downers, though, and The Aquabats—perhaps the world’s least serious band—are a good place to turn for some levity. “The Wild Sea” is a song about three voyagers—a boy, his dad and a viking—traversing the vast expanses of the wild sea. (It’s also, as any Aquacadet worth their salt will tell you, an alternate version of The Aquabats’ song “Chemical Bomb.”) In their journeys, our intrepid travelers discover the Purple Pearl of Panache, visit the Island of Bigfoot Women and are tempted by the call of the Sirens. Heck, their jaunty melodies tell us that they’ve even survived capture by pirates on the Isle of Donuts, a caper that somehow isn’t the first narrative mention of pirates in The Aquabats’ wonderfully bizarre catalog.

“The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)” by Mae

There’s a weird subset of sea songs that focuses on wizened old men bestowing their world-weary wisdom on a young hero, including the Hippos’ “He Said” and Mae’s “The Fisherman Song.” The latter is a nearly nine-minute epic that follows a selfish young man as he sets out in a boat with an old man who teaches him that, in order to receive love, you have to freely give it. Sure, there are some religious undertones here but what really sells the story is the incredibly-on-the-nose disappearance of the old man who maybe was an apparition all along! “I stepped off the boat and thanked the man,” the lyrics read. “When I turned back around to see him again he was already gone.” Miraculous!

“I Am the Sea” by Lock You Door

Yeah, I’m not actually going to talk about this one; I was just checking to see that you’re still paying attention. But it does fit the theme, right? It turns out that I may be distinctly qualified to write this article.

“The Great Exchange” by Thrice

As with “The Fisherman Song”, the hero of “The Great Exhange” is saved by an older man, in this case the captain of his ship. The song’s narrative explains how the protagonist and his fellow crew members had mutinied against their captain, only to accidentally ignite barrels of gunpowder in their recklessness, sinking the ship and seemingly drowning the protagonist. But then, just before he disappears beneath the waves, the protagonist is pulled up by none other than his betrayed captain, who—not unlike Jack in Titanic—sets the protagonist on a floating beam before sliding into the abyss. Of course, the metaphor at work here is not referencing a James Cameron movie but rather the Christian gospels of Jesus. Six of one, I guess.

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists

In the wake of Lightfoot’s “Wreck”, this is the archetypal modern sea-narrative song. Another nearly-nine minute opus, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” tells exactly the story that its title suggests: A young man sees his mother betrayed by a callous womanizer and dedicates his life to exacting revenge, spurred on by his mother’s dying wish for vengeance. Unlike the other entries on this list, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” goes out of its way to match its narrative arc with its sound. The song’s instrumentation, particularly a long instrumental bridge, makes use of wide array of tones including acoustic guitars, a mandolin and an accordion, evoking a Nantucket-esque vibe befitting the song’s subject matter. Perhaps most impressively, the band has stated that the track was recorded in one take using a single microphone with band members moving closer to or farther from the mic to adjust the volume of their instruments. Considering the narrative heft of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (or of The Hazards of Love, another narrative Decemberists project that ends with a sinking ship) it should come as no surprise that lyricist Colin Meloy has taken up a healthy career as a novelist.

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