I haven’t heard a new song for a while that has affected me as much as “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”. Putting aside being a parochial John Mayer fan for a moment, if you are a student of music and songwriting this song should be in your textbook. It’s from the latest John Mayer album “Born and Raised“. There are many great tracks on this album and tomorrow I may just as easily have a new favourite.
Today it is ‘Walt Grace’ especially because to listen closely and study this song you can learn so much about good songwriting. Walt Grace is home-made submarine pilot. He’s a fictional character Mayer created who against the odds and mocking of his friends and family, designs and builds a submarine in his basement to travel under the sea to Japan.
From the moment the song begins it instantly paints Walt’s story with images and pictures in my mind. It is a movie. The music and instruments are the score and sound effects. The lyrics of the song describe beautifully the story of his adventure and his success against the odds. They read wonderfully well even as a brief movie script outline.
Well crafted, the lyrics succinctly deliver the movie scenes of Walt’s character and story. And its more than purely a great story. The pre-chorus contains the inner message of the song. Great movies are well told stories through film imagines, which carry a central message or further meaning. They usually centre around a “hero” and his or her’s fight with change or transformation of character.
There is a central metaphoric meaning in the lyrics which could be linked to the question often put to mad adventurers. “Why?”. The answer is told in the pre-chorus lyric – “Cause when you’re done with this world. You know the next is up to you”. It’s just a little deeper than the standard adventurer responsive – “because its there”.
That’s because if like Walt, you are sick of your world and your surroundings forget trying to change them. You instead should choose to change yourself. Go somewhere else. This is the message and overall meaning of the song. Maybe Walt was a loner or a guy who didn’t quite fit into his society? Maybe he was just a little bit different and tired of the everyday and had a crazy dream. Going for this dream was a way to escape and change his situation even just for time of the journey. Even for the time he spent in his basement. Actioning his dream would also change his world thereafter.
Mayer talks about creating the song here. He says he went to great pains to tell Walt’s story in a song and to give it justice. Lyrically and musically he has done that. I think a way to illustrate how, is to literally break down and examine the song’s lyrics and arrangement.
The song opens up with a muted trumpet intro which is like the dawning of a new day for Walt. He tiredly wipes the sleep from his eyes and heads down to his basement to work on his dream. He may even be waking, still in his workshop seat from the previous day’s efforts.
Walt Grace, desperately hating this whole place
Dreamed to discover a new space and buried himself alive
Inside his basement. Tongue on the side of his face meant
He’s working away on displacement
And what it would take to survive
Cause when you’re done with this world
You know the next is up to you
And his wife told his kids he was crazy
And his friends said he’d fail if he tried
But with the will to work hard and a library card
He took a homemade, fan blade, one-man submarine ride
The melodies in the song mostly toggle between the 1st 3rd and 7th notes. These are the most stirring sounding intonations the human ear likes. They also prompt a need for sonic resolution in your ears which the melody hits by the end of each phrase. They colour the melody’s feel needed to match the story. Conflict, disturbance and then resolution.
A haunting sea sirens or pirate ghosts backing vocal is introduced in the pre-chorus. These serve to sound out the literal dangers of the ocean and his journey. They are also Walt’s personal self doubt and fears. They are Walt’s submarine building obsession which could be a self destructive path to travel. Like the lure of the sea siren’s hypnotic wail.
The mandolin or ukelele like guitar parts (12 string Dobro guitar?) are Walt tinkering with the tools he uses to build the submarine. They’re also Walt when he is pedaling away in his fantastic submarine contraption. Coupled with the marching snare drum rhythm they’re also the internal drive and purpose Walt has inside. The little flame that burns inside desiring for change.
That morning the sea was mad and I mean it
Waves as big as he’d seen it deep in his dreams at home
From dry land, he rolled it over to wet sand
Closed the hatch up with one hand
And pedaled off alone
Piano is added to this verse which is the mad seas coming to smite Walt. Its tone also sounds out the reality of the life and death seriousness of Walt’s venture, building drama and trepidation. They are mostly octave droning tones which signal Walt’s moment of reckoning. The sea is self doubt, haters and all the obstacles we battle against in change or trying to achieve our goals.
And for once in his life, it was quietAs he learned how to turn in the tideAnd the sky was aflare when he came up for airIn his homemade, fan blade, one-man submarine ride
The percussion and drums are great in the following instrumental section of the song after this verse. To me they sound like the little submarine motoring through the heavy seas as Walt battles them mastering its controls. The little cymbal hits are like puffs of pressure or steam expelling from the sub as it barely holds together. It breaks down back to the guitar part which is Walt pedaling on having made it through the worst of the ocean’s wrath. These are also the moments when Walt is truly living. He is happy and free so now there is more a joyous feel to the piano part as it uses its higher registers. There are some interesting “reversed” like guitar strikes which sound like effects you sometimes hear against movie scenes played backwards. Is it Walt’s life flashing before him.. perhaps scene sequences of his journey from the sub’s inception to this point?
One evening, when weeks had passed since his leaving
The call she planned on receiving finally made it home
She accepted the news she never expected
The operator connected the call from Tokyo
In this verse we learn that maybe Walt has been successful and has made it to Japan. I’ve read other simplistic interpretations of the song suggest that Walt dies and was on some kinda of death wish trip. It’s good that the song’s story may open that up as a possibility and there is some mystery about Walt’s fate. I think the news Walt’s wife receives is that he made it and wasn’t coming back from Japan. She didn’t think he would be successful, but then I think she didn’t expect that Walt would grow some balls as such and also choose to leave her (I’m assuming she was a bitch of course).
Now his friends bring him up when they’re drinking
At the bar with his name on the side
And they smile when they kid, as they speak of the man
Who took a homemade, fan blade, one-man submarine ride
The song then ends abruptly in a no nonsense manner after two cycles of the main guitar theme. My movie comparison fails a little as it doesn’t have a fade out to display the movie’s closing credits. Rather it finishes with a single still of Walt in Japan grinning from ear to ear and you can’t help as the listener also finishing up with a smile as well.