We’re now on to Drowning Nightmare 2, from side two of The Regional Variations (not that it strictly had a side two, being a CD-only album, but in my head it does).
I think songs are often at their most interesting when the narrator is a completely unsympathetic figure. It’s a challenge to one of the main conventions of songwriting, which is that songs should reflect our own emotional lives and offer some sort of comfort. If songs didn’t do this, after all, we would hardly spend whole days listening to them on the radio.
There are, of course, lots of songs in which a singer confesses to doing something awful (usually breaking someone’s heart rather than, say, committing crimes) but the point of these is usually redemption. You are supposed to like and relate to the singer more because they have been honest enough to confess to their misdeeds, just as you would (hopefully) do yourself.
And so a song that offers no comfort to the listener – or redemption for its narrator – can be quite a transgressive thing. If you don’t hear many of these, it’s probably partly because songs (more so than plays or novels) are generally assumed to reflect the personality of the singer, and few songwriters want the world to think they’re terrible people – most performers, after all, want to be liked.
Drowning Nightmare 2, though, is one such song. A man is walking into the river Clyde in Glasgow, presumably to his death. The narrator of the song is one of a group of people who, instead of intervening, are just watching this spectacle play out before going for chips and cheese. At the end the narrator expresses the hope that the whole experience will help him sleep better.
The song was inspired by a few different things. I’d been going to the National Review of Live Art, at which people like Franko B were putting their bodies through painful experiences for a paying audience in the name of art. I’d also been listening to 1. Outside by David Bowie, a dystopian concept album set in a world where a subculture of underground artists are murdering and mutilating people and presenting the results as art. So I was thinking about complicity in suffering. It’s not clear in the song whether the man walking into the Clyde is some sort of artist, drowning himself in a kind of extreme conceptual art performance (perhaps as part of NRLA, which was just a couple of streets away at the Arches), or whether the audience on the shore has just decided to treat this act as if it’s a piece of art, in which, to quote the lyric, he ‘became something more than a drowned man’. The question, I suppose, is whether one of these scenarios is any better than the other.
I haven’t written many songs like this – I prefer writing songs that are comforting, partly for the sake of my own mental health – but it can be fun to give it a go. I can’t quite remember but I suspect this one was influenced by Momus, a few of whose songs are about people doing terrible things for inexcusable reasons – like the narrator of Trust Me I’m a Doctor, who is attempting to justify the sexual abuse of his patients. I remember how shocking and compelling I found that song when I first heard it, and how I then listened to it on repeat. It’s not a song you tend to hear on the radio, for all sorts of obvious reasons.
Listening back to Swimmer One’s first album, I suspect I was a better songwriter when I wasn’t trying to write something that might get played on the radio. I also suspect we were often at our best as a band when we weren’t over-thinking things. A late addition to our first album, Drowning Nightmare 2 came together very quickly – a short guitar and drum machine sketch Hamish recorded before we had even met, to which we added very little, just a vocal and an electric piano part by me, which carried on beyond the end of the demo to create a new coda (the part that begins ‘I was so sick of all this shallowness…’). It was all it needed, really.