Not Waving But Drowning, out on April 19, showcases Carner’s lyricism perfectly, as he excels in crafting prose in stories about broken friendships and new beginnings. Carner’s debut album, Yesterday’s Gone, was released in 2017, and highlighted his poetic talents interwoven with playful melodies.
Not Waving But Drowning is much more feature heavy than Yesterday’s Gone, with artists like Tom Misch, Jorja Smith, and Sampha. However, the highlights of Not Waving But Drowning come from 24–year–old Carner himself.
The album begins with a track titled “Dear Jean,” referring to Carner’s mom. She reads a letter from Carner about how he’s met this wonderful girl, describing her with “Eyes deep blue, like the flicker of a flame ‘fore it dies.” He hopes his mom won’t be heartbroken, and assures her that he won’t leave forever. The song is a sweet and painful tribute to his stepfather's sudden death in 2014 due to an epilepsy–related seizure, leaving his mom a widow.
Other tracks are not as heavy. “Ottolenghi” refers to the famous British TV chef and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi. The song chronicles a journey where Carner reads Ottolenghi’s cookbook, Jerusalem, on a train and a family asks him, “about the bible I was reading.” The lyrics blur dream and reality, as Carner imagines Ottolenghi sitting across from him on the train later on.
The album hones in on specific characters in Carner’s life, from his mom to admired cooks. Similarly, in “Krispy,” Carner delves into his relationship with his close friend, Rebel Kleff. The two grew up in London together, but drifted apart over a financial conflict. The song almost acts as Carner reaching out to his old friend. In the outro, he raps, “Ayo listen, I got a lot more to say but I reckon I leave this next bit blank, so you wanna write something, you can write something / I love you, G.”
In the title track, Stevie Smith recites her poem, “Not Waving, but Drowning,” published in 1957. She says, “I read about a man getting drowned once / His friends thought he was waving to them from the sea but really, he was drowning /And then I thought that, in a way, it is true of life too / That a lot of people pretend, out of bravery really / That they are very jolly and ordinary sort of chaps / But really they do not feel at home at all in the world.” After being exposed to this poem, the album cover featuring a man with his arms and head above water suddenly takes on a new meaning.
Not Waving, But Drowning is a tribute to inner truths and complicated relationships. Its cozy undertones are comforting, softening the album to mastery. Carner’s outpouring of emotions, delivered in subtle, witty tones, reveals his excellence as a musician and lyricist.