This may come as no surprise, but one of my favorite bands is The Decemberists. I first learned about them in grad school. I was introduced to them, I shit you not, from this Questionable Content strip. The title says the joke at the end is like one of their songs. So I immediately looked them up. I remember, too, that Amazon was giving away an mp3 of a song, maybe “The Engine Driver.” So I grabbed that, and proceeded to get as much as I could. I even found a used CD of The Tain when I went back to school, in the local music/book store (that is, naturally, out of business now). This is a long, personal introduction just to say this: their new album is out!
I tend to buy my albums digitally now, but I still have that CD somewhere.
So, on the same day I got the I’ll Be Your Girl and a copy of the Ostara tarot. I thought I’d use the two together! What could go wrong (aside from using a deck I’m still figuring out, along with an album that’s not already entrenched in culture and my personal memory?). Neat.
As always, when you see me say there’s a card attached to this song, I just drew it. I don’t know in advance what the cards are, and I’m not choosing them myself.
Once in My Life
This song sets up two themes that run through the entire album: cheerful pessimism and a change in sound. I guess everyone and their mother has talked about how this album marks a change in sound for the band, what with the sweet 80s synths and funky bass and all that. So I won’t add more than that to it, except to say I’m into it.
The cheerful pessimism thing is more interesting to talk about, anyway. I don’t know if anyone in the band has said anything about it, but it just feels like it’s a post-Tr*mp album. Everything is awful (see “Everything is Awful”, later on the album), and we just have to make something out of it. Or we don’t have to, I guess. I do know Meloy is pretty vocal on social media about political stuff that’s been pissing him off, so this isn’t too big a reach. But it could just be the pessimism album. We all need one of those, right?
Specifically, this song is about that feeling where nothing seems to go right and we’re all just waiting for something to change or to show up and offer us something new or better. I certainly know that feeling. I probably would have been totally in love with this song in high school.
We’re off to a good start here. The heart stabbed through is an emblem of an old pain, like a hitch in our side that shows up when we least expect it. It can cause people to fold themselves up and stop trying, or, as in the song, to lament how nothing ever seems to go right. The trick, when this card comes up, is to live with the pain for a minute. I definitely just watched A Wrinkle in Time (which I mean to write about soon), and, you know, remember the Rumi? “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” That’s what the frog is an emblem of in this version of the card: it lives in the conditions we view as depressing and gloomy. If every day were bright and sunny, the frog would die as the ponds and rivers dry up.
This is the good shit, right here. It sounds like a folk song, particularly in the way it simply reports strangenesses without any editorializing. It’s a story of a dream, in which the speaker dreams of having the power to kill anyone and anything. Specifically, anyone who stirs strong emotions in the speaker dies. The cutting stone is that cold, hard weight in your chest when you harden yourself against love and empathy.
This is a great “villain song.” The Decemberists are good at that. See “The Rake’s Song” from The Hazards of Love. Here, the speaker finally destroys the stone itself, when his work is done. We have no idea what that work is, or why he is traveling, or why he’s so violent. This continues on from the previous song, so the speaker seems like the negative result of a person who laments their losses without doing anything about them. Though here, the speaker is very powerful. It’s worth remembering it’s a dream, though.
The King of Coins is a powerful figure, which is appropriate for a story about a man who can cut anything and anyone. It’s interesting that it’s a stone, rather than a blade, given that we got the king of earth. The Coins are heavy and weighty. They usually ground us. And given how hectic and mental our lives usually are, we tend to try really hard to ground ourselves. But, sometimes, we can go a little too far. The king is powerful and rich, and that doesn’t have to be bad. But he’s weighed down by his riches. He’s not using them for anything. He carries them with him like a miser in an old play. He’s blank-faced because he’s so “grounded” that he’s out of touch with the rest of us. We have to let our minds play as well as our bodies. The cutting stone is that heavy thing — it cuts away everything, but not through wit, just through its weight and power. Verging too far into the coins’ powers shunts us into this dream, which is tempting but, ultimately, distancing.
Two whole songs, huh? The post’s reached its end, so we’ll stop there. I know! There’s more to come though, don’t worry.
How are we liking the new image format? They take longer to make, but I hope they’re somewhat useful.
Join me for part two, featuring, uh, the middle of the album!