Lyric Lens: “It’s Amazing the Things That Float”

This week, I’ve been working on revising a lyric of my own about a character whose town is threatened by a hurricane.  In the process, I’ve been thinking a lot about another musical that tells the story of a natural disaster, Peter Mills and Cara Reichel’s The Flood.

Pete and Cara happen to be graduates of my alma mater, where a Playbill article tells me The Flood first took shape in a playwriting class in the 1990s, and where, in 2008, I designed costumes for a student production and got to know the beautiful score.  Since The Flood has been on my mind recently, today I’ll turn the Lyric Lens on one of my favorite songs from that show, “It’s Amazing the Things That Float.”  Here’s an excellent rendition by Kate Baldwin:

Watch this video on YouTube.

Let’s take a look at some lyrics:

It’s surprising the things I find myself thinking.
I know that I should be upset.
Somehow the grim reality
Hasn’t felt very real to me yet.

We don’t actually learn a huge amount about this character in these first lines.  (This is because the song comes quite late in the show, meaning that an audience would already know the character well.  But here at Lyric Lens I like to look at songs as they stand on their own, so I’m going to proceed that way.) Instead of information about the character singing, there’s a really juicy setup full of dramatic tension: something has happened to this character that should be upsetting to her, but somehow isn’t.  When I first heard these opening lines, I was immediately hooked because I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened to her.  As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait very long—just until the next line:

My home is a swimming pool,
Complete with a brand new moat.
But mainly I find
Something else on my mind:
It’s amazing the things that float.

I love the lyric hook—the simplicity, the quirkiness, how real it feels that this would be the first thought to pop into someone’s mind when their home is flooded.  I also love the bookend created by “it’s surprising” in the first line of this verse and “it’s amazing” in the last.

In the next part of the song we get an accumulation of delicious, precise detail that speaks volumes about who this woman is:

Pencils and half-empty jars,
Teacups and cereal bars.
There go my shoes,
Like tiny canoes leaving shore.

The specificity of these lines is so lovely.  So much characterization happens in such a small space.  But what I love most of all in this section is the way internal rhyme highlights the phrase “there go my shoes / like tiny canoes.”  It lives up to the refrain of “show don’t tell” that writing teachers are always repeating—I learn about the character singing this song because of the words she chooses and not because of a fact she tells me about herself.  It’s also just a really cute image that makes me smile.

Look what I found! The website selling these calls them “Inflatable Walk-on-Water Shoes,” but I will call them “tiny canoes,” thank you very much.

Look what I found! The website selling these calls them “Inflatable Walk-on-Water Shoes,” but I will call them “tiny canoes,” thank you very much.

Things get more serious in the next few lines, as the character’s eyes fall on a picture of her father:

Papa, you slipped from your frame
I feel like I’ve done the same.
You and I, we could drift out the door.

It’s a metaphor, y’all!  I love a good metaphor song.  Metaphor is such a valuable device because it allows a listener to understand that a character is grappling with something she can’t really articulate.  Here, in just one fleeting line, this woman lets slip that she feels adrift just like all the inanimate objects around her; even though she doesn’t dwell on it, the idea has been planted in my mind and for me it imbues the whole rest of the song with double meaning.  This double meaning is especially striking in the very next lines:

It’s surprising the things that rise to the surface––
It’s more than I’d ever have guessed.

I’ll admit I had to listen to the song a few times before I really got it, but these lines are so, so cool.  Of course the character is literally talking about things rising to the surface of the water, i.e. floating.  But because “rise to the surface” is also an idiom used to describe emotions, I hear this line as being another—perhaps subconscious—mention of how she isn’t reacting to this tragedy in the way she expected.

There are, as usual, countless things I could point out in this song, but in the interest of brevity, I’m just going to skip around to a couple of my remaining favorites.  First of all, there’s this:

Outside, there’s nothing but blue,
No clouds to break up the view,
Limitless lake
To cover the acres of corn.

That little sly fox of an internal rhyme is back, but this time it’s even more incredible.  I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but I’ll go ahead and assume it was, because it’s so beautiful and brilliant.  The way the rhyme falls, for a split second I hear it as something else: “limitless lake / to cover the ache.”  But then, almost before I take that in, the song moves on and we’re back to reality and “acres of corn.”  I don’t even really know what to say.  I just love that.  Rhyme is so powerful.

Finally, a quick look at the end of the song:

Strange, losing everything,
And leaving my home by boat.
But one thing I’ve found
In this world without ground:
It’s amazing the things that float.

I think this is a masterful moment of metaphor.  This character has talked a lot throughout the song about the tangible things in her life that have been affected by the flood.  In the end, though, the “one thing” that she can hold on to isn’t a thing at all, but an observation: “it’s amazing the things that float.”  Which, by the end of the song, seems like a statement about not just the surprising sight of shoes bobbing on the surface of the water, but how resilient the human body and mind can be in the absence of physical possessions.

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