No Fear of Drowning: British Sea Power's Powerfully Mythic Debut
UK rock-n-roll was in a state of flux in 2003. If we can be forgiven a sports-based analogy, one might say that it was in a bit of a "rebuilding" year. Britpop had given us Blur, Pulp, and Coldplay, and it had dominated for a little while but was inarguably past its prime; this vacuum gave a new legion of American bands the chance to take the lead. The Rapture, The Strokes, and My Morning Jacket had all received top accolades for that year and it was clear that rock was going in a direction that glorified the sounds of the past but packaged them in new ways that accounted for post-9/11 fear, doubt, and hope. It was hard for any Brits to break new ground in the scene since their own music press had already canonized their transatlantic brethren by this time.
In order to make any waves, a band would have to be exceptionally unique while still relatable to an audience that was salivating for repurposed musical tropes. They would have to be cocksure and fully-formed, with a message that resonated across many walks of life - and they would have to be self-aware enough to use those qualities to their advantage. Who would have the courage to plant a flag in this no-mans-land?
BSP's debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, arrived in the summer to do exactly that. Throughout the album, post-punk meets a Bowie-esque ability to craft a story and pastoral melodies offer a sense of rustic beauty while the lyrics remind us of both our own mortality and the majesty of the natural world. This is a band that turns Dostoevsky's fear of manipulation into a rallying cry for compassion and empathy ("Oh Fyodor you are the most attractive man!") to make impassioned "Apologies To Insect Life". Its meta sense of irony and its highly allegorical songwriting style serve to weave a brand new mythology - one that celebrates the triumph of human will but warns against the ravaging of nature, using the dual message to cultivate a theology tied inextricably to the mistakes of the 20th Century.
Let's start with the title: The Decline of… works on several levels, but I want to focus on two here. 1) It advertises to the world that this band is clever enough to make a cheeky joke at their own expense, and 2) it is a thesis statement for an album that is thematically concerned with the ideas of water, warfare, mortality, and Britannia. Themes that are further explored through the titles of songs, as well: "Something Wicked", "Fear Of Drowning", "Carrion", "A Wooden Horse" - frankly, with only minimal reading between the lines one could easily extrapolate something from every song title that speaks to one or more of these themes. The art in the liner notes reinforces this with a trio of firearms that have been merged with gardening tools, seemingly a token that is obliquely referential to "victory gardens" during WWII - one way that non-combatants could help with the war effort was by supplying their own food, thereby making more available to be sent to soldiers.
Much has been made of BSP's use of existing mythology (after all, their long-serving tour van is known as Zeus, and they love it so much they titled an EP after it), but isn't it just as likely that they were using that familiar framework to create their own? "Myth" is derived from the Greek mithos, which can be translated as "a fabulous story". While the most famous mythologies are handed down from Greco-Roman and Norse tradition, the reality is that a mythology can be concocted from any shared history. British Sea Power chooses to use postwar symbology as a starting point - they utilize iconography and geography to paint impressionistic sonic murals of a nationalist identity comprised of stiff upper lips and a pragmatic fear of the unknown. Beginning with one of Western history's most notorious conquerors, "Favours In The Beetroot Fields" asks "who's a little Caesar / taking all the world" before admonishing that "the universe is a record / of everything you say and do". Even for the rich and powerful, the arc of time bends toward justice, and through this lens the song becomes a parable with a clear takeaway: beware the fallacy of conquest for its own sake. This theme is further hammered home in "Fear of Drowning": "all the money in the world / won't help you now / the only way is down".
The war motif is explored in-depth throughout the LP with mentions of artillery, camouflage, and geographical reference points (Scapa Flow, the notorious scene of a German naval fleet scuttling, and Formby, the site of a Royal Air Force station in Northwest England, among others). But no song brings it home more than one that blatantly references a story from antiquity, bridging the gap between Greek mythos and the updated version that BSP is building. On album-closer "A Wooden Horse", the narrator declares that he is "ready to kill" - presumably in defense of the homeland - but we are reminded that pride comes before a fall as the chorus chimes in: "oh bring it in / and let us see it" - we all know how that turned out for the recipients of the original wooden horse. Elsewhere, the band maintains a staunch belief in human bravery (as occurs on a battlefield) and exhorts against the "half-deceased" zombie walk of modern life that can easily lead to an ideological death by leading one "into the tumuli", but they are always careful to point out that warfare inevitably ends in misery.
Importantly, that misery isn't always directly visited upon humankind, often it is brought about as an extension of the detriment caused to nature. "Something Wicked" begins with an evocation of "ancient oak leaf clusters" and a "lake as clear as crystal" but the dread-inspiring refrain of "something wicked this way comes" makes it clear that this idyllic scene is one that exists in a memory - perhaps a pristine countryside before being bombed by opposing forces - ending with the condemnation "your works of nature / are unnatural". In the album's proggy and post-rock-tinged masterpiece "Lately", the narrator wonders if he's been standing still for "so long", noting that "Natura's found a way of telling you that it was going wrong". When viewed alongside the other mentions of war and armament, this could be seen as a treatise on the military-industrial complex and its disproportionate contribution to global warming; while that is admittedly a far reach, the case could certainly be made. The song continues through its 10+ minutes in tectonic movements as the narrator becomes a geological spectator through ages of rock formation and the ages of culture, using both as balance points upon which to hint that human history is merely a blip on a timeline that is so long it defies all imagination.
Decline sits in a rarified space - it is an art-rock shot across the bow fired by a then-unknown band, both erudite and urgent, carrying real messages about the lessons of history and the dangers of repeating mistakes; but it was dropped into a climate that was focused on what was happening in the States and by definition somewhat neglectful of what was going on in the UK. While the themes are heavy, BSP pulled off a staggering achievement: they managed to make an album that was challenging to understand and yet easy to enjoy. They followed their own path and created a new myth of postwar Britain while celebrating her greatness both culturally and environmentally. As a rock band, they made a case for themselves as masters of the form by putting on live shows that were legendary for years afterward.
As far as Re-Critic is concerned, The Decline of British Sea Power deserves more recognition than it gets. As we continue to formulate the history of the early 2000's through incomplete recollection and rampant nostalgia, it becomes more apparent by the year that the LCD Soundsystems and White Stripes and Daft Punks of the world will be the acts that we credit as being the musical pillars of the era. While there is merit in that assessment, it is simplistic. Perhaps all history is simplistic in this same way - maybe the CliffsNotes of a generation are all that truly filter down through the ages. There is some solace in the idea of leaving more room for the irregular jigsaw pieces that make up a moment in time instead of only focusing on the picture created, hopefully history can spare a thought for BSP's debut as a remarkable part of a larger whole. A fitting quote printed on the album cover itself illustrates this eloquently:
"We ourselves may be loved only for a brief time…Even so, that will suffice…There is a land for the living and a land for the dead…" - this is paraphrased from Thornton Wilder whose original quote goes on to say that "the bridge [between the lands] is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
With Decline, BSP proved that they were profoundly aware of the land of the dead, yet they created a beautifully realized message for, and soundtrack to, the land of the living. It is only fitting that we should recognize the album for both its brazen originality and its deeper universal meaning; that we should give it a place in our own mythology.