In 2005, the Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley released an album called Cole’s Corner, which contained a song called “The Ocean.” Here are the lyrics to the song:
You lead me down, to the ocean
So lead me down, by the ocean
You know it's been a long time,
You always leave me tongue tied
And all this times for us
I love you just because
You lead me down, to the ocean
The world is fine, by the ocean
You know this time's for real
It helps the heart to heal
You know it breaks the seal of the talisman that harms
And so you look at me and need
The space that means as much to me
So lead me down, to the ocean
Our world is fine, by the ocean
You know the way it is in life, it's so hard to live up to
So why are you still dressed in your mourning suit
I assume, I assume
You'll lead me down, to the ocean
Don't leave me down, by the ocean
Here comes the wave, here comes the wave
Here comes the wave, down by the ocean
The ocean (repeat to fade)
My introduction to Hawley was likely the same as most on this side of the pond: the song that closes “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” the 2010 documentary (?) about Banksy.
Hawley hits a number of sweet spots for me: he was an off-and-on member of Pulp, his musical style is lush and spooky, his singing and writing style is a deep and brooding baritone reminiscent of Scott Walker. But it’s only recently that I started spending considerable time with Cole’s Corner, a genuine hit in England back in 2006 (it was nominated for a Mercury Prize). And I keep coming back to one track on the album, “The Ocean,” a genuinely grand and majestic love song.
I’ve listened to it about 20 times this week. If this blog post is your first experience with me, you may be surprised to learn I am subject to brief, intense obsessions. Right now I am obsessed with the song “The Ocean,” and I wanted to know more about it: it’s background, if there’s a story there, what others have felt about it. It’s the top played Richard Hawley song on Spotify so I assumed there would be discussion of the song to be found somewhere on the internet.
But no, I found basically nothing. No annotation on Genius, no Wikipedia article, it’s not even a highlighted song on the Allmusic review. I found one comment, a single comment, on the extremely normal website “song meanings dot com.” And reader, it drove me fucking batty:
Listen, I am not acclaimed singer/songwriter Richard Hawley. But I feel confident stating that The Ocean is not “a vanilla love song lyrically.” It is a very dark and pained song about the final loss of a tortured love affair, told through miraculously sparse poetry. I wouldn’t be so offended by this misreading if I wasn’t at present time looking for someone, anyone else who felt as moved and connected to the lyrics as I did. But I guess we can’t all be beautiful creatures of pure love, now can we!!
Go ahead and look back at those lyrics again. “The Ocean” is a song about returning to a place of familiarity and comfort with someone you’ve shared a wealth of experiences and feelings with. This is a place our narrator has built with his love through their shared experiences (“You know it's been a long time”). It is a place of experienced love, not necessarily a place of happiness and peace (“You know this time's for real//It helps the heart to heal//You know it breaks the seal of the talisman that harms”). People in toxic relationships tend to retreat to safe spaces to avoid facing their problems, or else glorify their pain to grant it meaning and depth (“And so you look at me and need//The space that means as much to me”). They treat the pain as important, as an unavoidable aspect of life (“You know the way it is in life, it's so hard to live up to”).
But in the last section before the coda, there is a turn. The narrator “assumed” that he was descending together, with his love, into that world of trauma and joy that they created together. But instead, he was being left there - his love knew that this relationship was dead, and she was leaving it (“So why are you still dressed in your mourning suit”). It is after this that the refrain switches, finally, from “You lead me down,” to “Don’t leave me down.”
But he has been left, alone in this place. Without his companion the feeling of this ocean changes from calm and placid to cold and dangerous - which it always was, because the ocean is powerful beyond comprehension, and it will crush you.
And it is relentless (“Here comes the wave, here comes the wave”). It’s easy to ignore the mess you’re in when you’ve got company. Being alone with it feels a bit like drowning (“The ocean, the ocean.”)
Here’s a video I took when I was looking at the ocean in December of 2020. Unrelated.