Everything is Awful
Pretty simple, right? It’s definitely a great way to start a post! The repetition is important here, I think, as it carries on the tendency from the previous song. The song functions as a parody: it sounds like an “everything is great” anthem, but it’s just completely inverted. My favorite part is near the end, where Meloy asks for quiet so he can sleep and then sort of mumbles out.
This is another “ill aspected” situation, given how awful everything is. The Sun usually means things coming into the light of day, the light of rationality and careful thought. Think Apollo, not Dionysus. However, in this song, what’s coming out into the light is our distress. The song reminds us that it’s OK to just say things suck. Yesterday (for me as I write, not when this gets posted), I was dealing with some pretty bad news. And yet, when the guy at the store asked me how I was doing, I said “fine, I guess” like anyone might. I didn’t even think about it.
I’m not trying to say polite niceties are awful or lies or something, it’s just an example. We have permission to bring things other than accomplishments and successes out into the daylight. We can haul our misery out, too. There we can help take care of it, and take care of ourselves. The artists’ booklet says the “reversed” meaning of this card is that sometimes things have to rest, just like Meloy asks for a chance to sleep.
This is probably the song that stands alone the best on the album, though the sound of “Severed” helps it do so as well. The song can be summed up pretty easily by these lines: If things are bad, “just go and leave it that-a-way.” The song is the story of a person who keeps trying to kill himself and can’t seem to. Forces seem to conspire to prevent this from happening. We’re all suckers in this sense: life just keeps happening to us, no matter what we do. We’re all lost along the way, and I’m sure Meloy, English major that he was, thought of Dante at least a little bit.
The woman in the image is learning some sort of fascinating and presumably important lesson from a magic frog. This is the second time frogs have shown up in our reading. Frogs, remember, are regenerative creatures. Some kinds hibernate for years in mud, while others change sex if they need to in order to breed. They sing, too. This woman did not give up, even when part of her quest was just slogging on along forever. Sometimes you’re just digging a ditch. I think this card reminds us that the song is clear about the speaker’s goal — love — and his feeling of despair. But his sucker’s prayer is to keep on going, and that’s what we all have to do. This song, paired with the last one, offers us hope that we’ll be heard if we just ask for help. If you think prayer is for suckers, you’re right. It’s just that we’re all suckers here.
We All Die Young
A strange reminder. The speaker is confronted with death, not entirely intentionally, and remembers something from a dream, something his father said — that when we die, we’re all young. We could take this in a lot of ways. One classic idea is that we all want our parents when we die, which is a child-like desire. But we also always feel like we’re “young,” at least until we’re so old we ache and have trouble moving. What “young” means tends to shift over the course of our lives.
I feel drawn to the origins of the strange message: in a dream, the speaker hears the message from “Bill Tecumseh Sherman.” Tecumseh Sherman was a general in the American army during the American Civil War. Later he hears the same message from his father and, finally, from a strange voice emerging from a room once the speaker wakes. The children’s chorus repeating the phrase at the end certainly brings us one more round of significant repetition. The album has moved us from anger to desperation to a cheerfully-sung song of acceptance of that “time to go home.”
The classic Ten of Swords depicts a dead body pierced by swords, lying in a pool of blood. Many versions show the horizon in the background with the sun rising over it. So the card depicts the ultimate failure of the intellectual sphere, a “death” of emotion and intellect warring together. The sunrise is supposed to show that there’s hope after that. Here, the lovely, emotional, subconscious whale is being slain by the swords. The hope emerges from the comparison to Moby-Dick: it’s hard to believe those swords are killing that whale. So we could think of this card as showing us a moment when the emotional, unconscious force retreats beneath the waves after a battering from our dogged minds. It will probably be back.
The song seems to indicate a return of the lost, with ghosts and spectral recordings reminding us of our deaths and the emotional nature of it. We’ll all be scared and innocent in death, even if we were not those things at the ends of our lives. The contemplation of death freezes us, because it removes us, hypothetically, from the stream of life. But when we return, we can bring a certain strength and wisdom from the experience. It’s like a ritual, but through trauma rather than societal construction. I’ve written about that fairly recently.
Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes
Here’s my favorite song on the album. It’s actually two songs, about two different “sirens.” Actual Greek sirens weren’t really fish people — they were birds, reminiscent of the harpies. Rusalka, on the other hand, is certainly fish-like. It’s a Slavic spirit. The second song, more upbeat, describes another, unnamed water spirit. Both lure the speakers to watery graves. The interesting part is that the first song describes the fateful encounter like a love affair, though there’s a kind of Corpse Bride accident, where a ring falls off the swimmer’s finger and wakes the Rusalka. “Rusalka, Rusalka” is lush and stately, with swells of sound and lyrics that really get me going. Savvy fans of the band may notice the song is reminiscent of the ending of The Hazards of Love. There, too, a bride and groom come together in a drowning. Given that the “vows” are spoken of after the fact, the swimmer is probably dead.
That’s definitely true in “Wild Rushes.” The lyrics play a rhyming trick to tell us that: the speaker inches forward in the water, saying he went in to his knees, his chest, his chin, his head. In each case, the song rhymes something with that word. It ends on “head.” The obvious rhyme is, of course, “dead.” Once he goes in to his head, he can no longer speak, so the lyrics end. The song itself is more typical, with a sultry nymph luring the singer in, with the water and her limbs blurring together in a sexual fit. The songs both sort of mirror folk tales about water creatures. It’s interesting, though, that the songs appear right near the end of this album. We’ve come finally to death itself. No longer are we dreaming of death, or resigning ourselves to it. It’s happened, and it turns out it’s linked to the act of love, of life itself. We can’t escape death, we can only be foolish, pray our prayers, and walk forward.
The Two of Cups is often the card that indicates a new relationship, particularly a romantic one. Here the card is homier, with birds nesting and cuddling together. I … cannot get over the human hands on the birds. It sure takes a fairly cute image and ratchets up the body horror a couple of degrees. But, for us as readers, it turns the birds into shapeshifters. They’re simply mostly bird and partly human right now. They certainly won’t be able to use that teapot without hands. The birds indicate a home-building power. Both speakers in the songs certainly go home, in that traditional sense of calling death a “going home.” But they also pair up with lovers who are amorphous and powerful, with the strength of the unconscious sea. It’s worth remembering that “soul” comes from the word for salt and pointed toward the salt sea. An ensouled thing is one with the emotional depths of the ocean.
These birds are airy, but they have big cups of tea to link in the water imagery. The songs double-down on the waters. Death is our companion in life, and finding a companion in life is a kind of death — a death of the person to become part of the gestalt.
I’ll Be Your Girl
This song pulls one very good trick: the entire song is a classic “I’ll be there for you” (yes, here, go ahead) song, except instead of being the listener’s “man” they’ll be her girl. And the song goes out of its way to talk about being a man only to decide, no, I’ll be your girl instead, because that’ll be better. I have no idea if the band wanted to stick an oar into the rivers of transgender debates, but that happened, I suppose. The song says the singer can be a man or a girl, depending on what they need to do and what their partner needs.
I suspect it is sort of coding certain strengths to each (and, of course, it’s still using a binary), but it’s very effective in just simply wailing out that, you know, whatever, I’ll do this one today.
I do think it’s important that this song ends the album. After the journey from anger and vitriol to desperation and acceptance, this song highlights the less sinister strengths of a loving relationship. The sucker’s prayer has been answered because he learned to love at last.
This bun is serious. The Four of Coins is, in the Waite-Smith, a crowned man hunched over, clutching his coins. They insulate him from the ground at his feet. He’s usually seen as a miser. But that card often indicates that protection from the outside world is necessary and good. This card highlights that. The bun warrior is serious and surrounded by shields and coins in their viking styled longboat. The bun is out to get wealth, or coming back after getting it. Water still shows up in the sea foam around the ship, linking together earthly stability and emotional power.
This song reminds us, simply, of what can stabilize us when we run afoul of the terrible world. It’s not love, or not only love — it’s also our ability to be different things and different people. We can be our lover’s girl one day and someone else’s man the next, if we’re flexible enough — if we can bring together our emotional power and our grounded stability.
That’s the whole album! Like many Decemberists albums, it focuses on the links binding people together and how they’re always with us, for good or bad. This album complicates matters by showing how the world intrudes on those connections and saps the power from them. But, no matter what, they connection can’t be destroyed by those things. Only we can do that, if we fail to recite our sucker’s prayer.