The song is built around a pair of somewhat unusual metaphors. Verse 1 has “Darling, I need you like ships need the sea.” Verse 2 gives us “Darling, I need you like birds need the sky.” Of course, images of birds and sea and sky are familiar. But exactly what she’s doing with them struck me as novel.
Often we speak and sing of love in terms of attachment—someone to hold onto, someone to cling to. Our lover supports us, providing solidity and reliability. They might be called an anchor, in nautical terms.
And this isn’t wrong. One of the great virtues of love is to give us something to keep us steady and secure; someone to fall back on, someone who stands by us. I need only mention another excellent Emily Hearn song, “Not Walkin’ Away”: “Oh, you’re a pain to be around / Oh, but you’re my solid ground.”
At the same time, it’s also familiar to see love as lifting us up, enabling us to soar. The support we’ve just talked about can be a launching pad, stimulating us to be our best selves—as innumerable songs tell us. Of course, that kind of support requires a good deal of generosity and selflessness in the lover. It is by no means a sure thing; our relationships are frequently imperfect, and there are also plenty of devastating depictions of relationships that hold us back and confine us. But love at its best is an enabler and not a constraint.
“Like Ships Need the Sea,” however, goes even further. The singer’s lover is to her as the sea is to a ship. It’s as if the beloved himself is a kind of endless field for exploration and discovery. The sea not only supports the ship afloat, but carries her to new horizons; the sea is the vast expanse through which wonderful journeys are made.
If this aspect weren’t clear enough, the same relationship is expressed again in a different analogy, birds and the sky. We might say that the air upholds birds (“the wind beneath my wings”) as the sea upholds the ship; but “sky” is a more intangible concept than “air.” We see it less as support than as aspiration. The open sky is the very paradigm, for humans, of limitless expanse. We have the image of launching ourself into an endless range that can carry us anywhere. The lover is the very universe in which we can live and move and have our being.
To my mind, it’s a very effective pair of metaphors.
We talked last time about the openness of the F&SF fan to endless possibility: anything can happen. Hearn’s song speaks of love in the same way. It is, we might say, a F&SF fan’s kind of love.
Thus, in chapter 6 of Time Signature, it’s natural for Trina to make an oblique reference to “Like Ships Need the Sea.” She wants the kind of love that opens her out, not closes her in. It’s crucial to her that love lead to new horizons. And that’s the peculiar challenge she faces in the story. Is what she’s being offered that kind of love?