When is the best time to write about a song? Perhaps it’s with the clarity of a first listen, when everything is fresh to your ears. Perhaps it’s after a long process of becoming accustomed to its nuances and details. One thing is for sure – the best moment is probably not when you’ve just developed a strange obsession with it and are listening to it on repeat. Love is blind, as somebody or other said. And what less likely song is there to fall for than “Sink or Swim” – a not particularly remarkable song justifiably left off ‘It’? But here we are anyway.
The first recording of Sink or Swim, and the reason I’m writing about it now and not later, is that it was recorded earlier that year for the “Spice” demo, though it was then called “Taking The Plunge.”* It’s one of a series of songs on the theme of taking your first steps in the adult world, later to include ‘Looking For Life’ and ‘Joking Aside’. That only one of these songs made it onto the original pressing of the LP was probably not a co-incidence. With all three present it does tend to sound like a concept album – “one Sheffield boy’s struggle to enter the adult world” – and that’s probably not the impression anyone wanted to give. Consequently it was left unmixed until Fire records decided to remaster the album for its 2012 reissue.
On first impressions the song isn’t great. The major weakness is the half asleep cruise ship keyboard line, which unfortunately serves as the intro. Jarvis’s vocals sound at once whimsical and uncomfortable. he keeps slipping into a low croon, emphasising the seriousness of his message – which, unfortunately, isn’t much of a message at all.
I see it’s time for me to take the plunge
Instead of sitting back, Watching everyone
Decisions now affect my future days
But are they right or wrong? Who on earth can say?
Not pretentious, then, just sort of ponderous and uninspired. It’s pretty much all a litany of half-arsed mistakes until David Hinkler’s trombone appears, somehow tying the melody together into a thing of wonder. It’s something of an illusion – sometimes you hear it, sometimes you don’t – just a moment of harmony that sounds incredible. I’ll wade through the thing a hundred times to hear that moment. Maybe I’ll be bored with it next week, but for now it’s caught me.
*It’s rumoured that the version on the reissue is from the Spice demo rather than the unmixed re-recording.