5 Great Songs with Nautical Themes

Water and the sea has to be one of literature’s most popular metaphors. It can be cleansing or convey the idea of rebirth. (After all, we spend our first nine months encased in amniotic fluid.) Waves are an example of nature’s constant renewal and life’s cycles, while the ocean depths embody all that is hidden from view—in ourselves and the world. Then there’s always the journey by sea, where the passage can be an emotional/spiritual one. Musically, acts often fashion arrangements that explore the sea’s meditative and enveloping aspects.

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“Ocean Size,” Jane’s Addiction (1988)

This song was penned by lead singer Perry Farrell in response to a bout of homelessness. He was one of 14 musicians to be arbitrarily kicked out by the owner of the eight-bedroom house they shared. “At that time in my life, I was sick of moving,” Farrell said. “It’s really difficult for a guy like myself to show up and try to, you know, pass myself off as a normal, dependable young man who’s not going to screw up this guy’s house when I leave.”

So it’s literally referencing being evicted in the second line, when he sings, They cannot move you, no one tries / No one pulls you out from your hole, like a tooth aching a jawbone. Old texts across many cultures allude to how water wears away stone. In the Bible, Job compares it to how death scrubs us from this world after it wears us down. Farrell looks enviously at the ocean, which can break on the shore / Come together with no harm done.

“Bathysphere,” Cat Power (1996)

This song was originally written and performed by Bill Callahan in 1995 with his solo project, Smog. It’s a fine, haunting tune that really comes to life voiced by Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. Her gauzy, whispered vocals seep introverted vulnerability such that when she says she asked to be taken to the bay and put on a ship at the age of seven it’s creepy but believable. It captures the odd concept of feeling free, isolated in a bathysphere at the bottom of the sea, but perhaps that’s freedom when, as she avers, one no longer cares.

Marshall dated Callahan in the mid-’90s when she performed this song, and moved with him to South Carolina where she created her breakthrough disc, Moon Pix. They broke up the following year and it’s long been speculated the frightened cat beneath the lightning on the cover of Smog’s 1999 album Knock Knock was a reference to their failed dalliance.

“Captain Kennedy,” Neil Young (1980)

This Neil Young classic takes it’s loping rhythm from old folk standard “The Blind Fiddler,” from which his old bandmate Stephen Stills borrowed the melody for “Know You Got to Run.” It was originally recorded for Young’s unfinished 1976 album Hitchhiker (2017), then found its way onto Chrome Dreams in 1977—which was also not released—before finally seeing light of day on Hawks and Doves in 1980. Both the aforementioned albums have been released as part of Young’s ongoing series of archive-clearing releases.

The song is about a son heading out to war like his father once did before him, and recounts the real-life story of Capt. Louis Kennedy, whom Young and Jimmy Buffett befriended in the Bahamas. His schooner was sunk, as in the song, by a German U-Boat in 1941. His colorful life was chronicled in the 2010 book, The Last Schoonerman: The Remarkable Life of Captain Lou Kennedy by Joe Russell.

“Dead Sea,” The Lumineers (2012)

This very pretty song was written by the trio’s frontman, Wesley Schultz, for his wife Brandy. They met when he was working as a busboy, and when they first started dating, she was enduring a tough stretch. It’s then she called him her “dead sea.” “‘I’m supposed to be sinking right now. … I’m feeling really low, but you’re holding me up and even if I tried, I couldn’t sink,’” she told him, as Schultz related to American Songwriter.

He turned the phrase into a song for Valentine’s Day, not even thinking it might one day be one of their most recognized songs despite not breaking on radio. Another line is taken from real-life as well: You left with just the clothes on your back / They took the rest when you took a nap. Brandy Schultz was sleeping at the airport waiting for a flight, and somebody took all her bags. 

Brandy Schultz has become something of a superstar of her own. After having supported her husband by nannying, in 2012—the year of The Lumineers’ debut release—she started Adventure Nannies, recruiting smart, dynamic, idiosyncratic caregivers for traveling families. It’s now a multimillion-dollar business.

“This is the Sea,” The Waterboys (1985)

This majestic title track concludes the third Waterboys album, the culminating effort in pursuit of the sweeping, romantic, atmospheric arena rock sound they finally achieved with This is the Sea. Keyboardist Karl Wallinger subsequently left to start World Party and main songwriter Mike Scott pared away the instrumental excess to the spare folk/blues essentials, beginning with 1988’s Fisherman Blues.

The song’s lyrics contrast the river and the sea, the frustrations and doubts coded into everyday life and the all-encompassing place we’re all making our way toward. In the final stanza, the river sort of transforms into a train, carrying you to your intended destination, available to everyone that’s aware and fleet: Now I hear there’s a train / It’s coming on down the line / It’s yours if you hurry / You’ve got still enough time / And you don’t need no ticket / And you don’t pay no fee.

In this case, focusing on the river separates us from our shared ongoing journey to the sea and the endless cycle of life.

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