The River Ouse, York, United Kingdom

What the Water Gave Me by Florence + the Machine

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Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones Read full Lyrics
"I am obsessed with drowning. It's about succumbing and being completely overwhelmed by something that's bigger than everything," says Florence Welch, singer-songwriter for the band Florence + The Machine. Her obsession with drowning is the theme of the first single released from the band's second album, Ceremonials. "What the Water Gave Me" is a folksy, indie pop song specifically inspired by the suicide of Virginia Woolf.

Rising near Lower Beeding, the River Ouse, which takes its name from the old Celtic word for water, meanders eastward into East Sussex and down to New Haven, splitting Denton Island from the mainland before tumbling between two breakwater piers into the English Channel. This river is most famous for one macabre reason, Virginia Woolf's suicide. In 1941, having battled through depression exacerbated by the onset of World War II, the Blitz of London in which she lost her home, and the less than positive reception of her Roger Fry biography, Woolf decided to end it. On March 28, Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with stones and walked into the river near the village of Rodmell. Her body wasn't found until April 18. "I feel certain that I am going mad again," said Woolf in a suicide note to her husband, an idea reiterated by Welch when she talks about spending a family holiday at the bottom of a swimming pool; "I just wanted to be somewhere that completely encapsulated me where I could just thrash and scream." Luckily for fans of the band, Welch didn't follow Woolf to a watery grave.

The River Ouse<br><a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:River_Ouse_in_York.JPG">Chris J Wood</a>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia CommonsThe River Ouse
Chris J Wood, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
"What the Water Gave Me" is named after a Frida Kahlo painting of the same title, depicting feet protruding from a bathtub amidst various surreal scenes, one of which includes the naked body of a woman in the throes of drowning. The song features the standard rock lineup, as well as a gospel organ and harp, lending the song an additional ethereal quality. Often described as Björkian, Welch seems to channel a sound in this track more akin to Imogen Heap, including a healthy dose of synth sounds and eerie vocals, while being reminiscent of '80s gothic rock from the likes of The Cure, with a vocal style that smacks of Dolores O'Riordan. The tribal drums, overdriven bass, and crashing cymbals, combined with Welch's range of vocal dynamics, puts this song through a gauntlet of emotion from sad and poignant to bombastic and ecstatic. The lyrics are intense and poetic, covering themes of suicide, but also undying love. Welch describes the song as being about "children who are swept out to sea and their parents go in after them and try to rescue them," and elaborates further by saying, "I'm really interested in the things that are overwhelming. The ocean seems to me to be nature's great overwhelmer." The music video for the song was filmed at Abbey Road Studios and simply shows the band singing and recording the song. Considering the story behind this track, the video is rather disappointing and banal, with the water theme conspicuous by its absence.

"What the Water Gave Me" certainly is an epic song in which listeners can find themselves submerged, perhaps even drowning in the ethereal and euphoric strains of Welch's music.

Suzanne van Rooyen
March 2, 2013

Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. Although she has a Master's degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and The Other Me.
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