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Riding the raft of political water currents in Velvet Starling’s “Sold Down the River”

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If you would like to see an overly elaborate analysis of this song, watch the video on my YouTube channel.

It’s not every day you see a 16-year-old rocking out on the big stages. But that’s all in a day’s work for Christian Gisborne of the Velvet Starlings.

Though he is only a teenager, Gisborne implements instrumentals and lyrics that speak to and build off of each other in a way that is innovative and sophisticated beyond his years. His fondness for group harmonies, as showcased most prominently on Velvet Starlings EP, allows for a richer melody and overall sound. The use of dynamics and explosive drums both tell a story and perfectly communicate to the listener what ideas he intends the song to portray, and Gisborne’s passion for the music leaves no room for flat or bland intervals. And there is no better example of this than his song, “Sold Down the River.”

Gisborne’s love for The Beatles is significantly displayed in this song, where he utilizes a pulsing organ solo that tosses you one way and another like the waves of the sea. It is not uncommon for Gisborne to speak out against controversial issues, including media overstimulation, animal rights, and various political issues. In “Sold Down the River,” Gisborne speaks out about the common lies and promises fed to us by the government and various industries, promising us a better life while they feed off of our money and support. About the song, Gisborne has said: “Our leaders…they’ve sold us a dream and they’ve not always kept true to their word.” His message is needed now more than ever in the world of today; there is not a more perfect time than now for him to sing, “We’ve been sold down the river/We’ve been sold to the highest bidder.”

The song opens with the keyboard playing the Em and Am chords together, simulating the motion of the water’s currents of a river or ocean, advancing towards you and then receding before coming back again. This not only capsules the basic metaphor of the river, but also connects with the idea of differing political views and empty promises tossing you helplessly to and fro. Then the guitar enters before the lead vocals, alone and somber, setting the stage for a dismal state of the world. He sings hopelessly in the chorus as he repeats over and over, “We’ve been sold.”

We’ve been waiting such a long time at the station,
Went through every kind of trial and tribulation
We’ve been called, we’ve been sold
We’ve been searching for a diamond in a coal mine
We’ve been praying for a single ray of sunshine…

The song progresses, adding more guitars, more vocals, more drums; layer by layer, bit by bit as the problems stack up, growing in intensity with each passing day. As you float away on your raft down the river, Gisborne paints the scene for you; the vocals of the “ohs” after the first chorus are like the souls of those who have already been sold, warning you to not follow the same fate. And he gets more passionate about this warning as he progresses, even calling these politicians “sinners” stealing “our hearts of gold.”

The pounding guitar and drums of the bridge packs a powerful punch along with the lyrics “We’ve been sold for pennies on the dollar/When they promised us a new tomorrow” — a betrayal of trust from someone who promised you they would fix your problems. It thumps with the beating of your heart, the weight of the world pressing down upon you: “It’s a tragedy — a degradation — for us all.” He is no longer a victim, he is an activist, passionate about the state of the world and ready to stand up for us and himself.

The song quiets down with Gisborne almost whispering the words of the chorus before repeating with another punch that swears that he will never be sold. And then he leaves us with “Here’s a blanket and some change to keep your soul high,” the bare minimum you would give to someone who was homeless. As the vocals and the pulse of the keyboard fade out, you are left wondering: just how many lies have you been “sold” throughout your life? But by then it’s too late. You’re floating down that river, away from his voice, away from what you know. And you are alone. Maybe you should think again about what the world promises you before you sell your soul to it.

Watch my overanalysis of “Sold Down the River” on YouTube:

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Madeline Milton

Madeline Milton

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Music journalist and critic publishing music analysis and reviews on Medium and YouTube (Play it Loud).