Every so often, we need a gripping seafaring-disaster song, and that time has come. While shipwrecks have never been at the top of any pop songwriter’s checklist, they’ve nonetheless set sail every so often in the rock era, dating back at least to Gordon Lightfoot’s Number One hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and the late Harry Chapin’s “Dance Band on the Titanic.” More recently, the Decemberists’ perversely jaunty “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” added a grim new twist — the tale of two survivors of a whale attack waiting out their deaths inside the beast’s belly.
It’s been a while since anything similar has come along, but to that list we can now add “The Voyage of the James Caird” by New Zealand singer-songwriter Graeme James. As with Lightfoot’s stoic ballad, this one — included on James’ newly released The Weight of Many Winters EP — is also based on a real-life incident. Roughly 100 years ago, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton — now there’s a fitting name for someone with that job — was on his way with his team to the South Pole when their ship became trapped in ice, eventually sinking.
Shackleton and his crew survived on a nearby floe (yes, floating ice), but after five months, Shackleton had had enough and decided to risk an 800-mile ocean crossing to find help. With a handful of crew, Shackleton sealed a 23-foot lifeboat, the James Caird, with seal’s blood, climbed aboard and eventually reached South Georgia Island, but only after enduring storms and other nearly life-extinguishing perils.
James’ song doesn’t lay out all those details, but it doesn’t need to. His records tend to be calm and ruminative, recalling the work of fellow modern balladeers like Nathaniel Rateliff (during his unplugged moments) and Phoebe Bridgers. But starting with its opening line — “I never thought I’d see the black cliffs of south Georgia again/Yet here we are”— “The Voyage of the James Caird” churns and tosses, just like its story. The song opens somberly, as if we’re about to hear the beginning of a tall tale in a pub. But as James’ Shackleton starts recounting what happened, the arrangement gradually whips itself into a modest frenzy; the drums sound increasingly tumultuous, the banjo feels more desolate than that instrument normally does, and falsetto voices between the verses sound haunted.
In the last verse, everything slows down, as if Shackleton and his crew have arrived safely. The trip is over and they’ve survived, emerging from the ordeal with a renewed appreciation of nature: “We have suffered, starved, and triumphed, groveled down yet grasping glory/We’d grown bigger in the bigness of it all, of it all.” Other than “shipwreck songs still rule,” maybe there’s a lesson in there for us all.