I already told you about my Decemberists habit, but I failed to mention one of their key techniques. Every time I hear a song they’ve used it in, I feel utterly crestfallen, but simultaneously like dancing in the streets and humming along. We’re talking about disparity here, folks: those songs that bounce along irresistibly while telling a truly tragic tale.
Colin Meloy is an absolute prodigy at that. Take “The Sporting Life,” for instance. Pay attention to the drums, the tempo–feels like a chipper little number, doesn’t it? But if you’re listening well, you’ll notice that Meloy is forlornly relating an athletic faux pas, and you can almost hear his cheeks burn as he sings “And there’s my girlfriend, arm-in-arm with the captain of the other team.”
The cognitive dissonance here is funny, literally. Meloy’s downtrodden vocals (“But while I am lying here, trying to fight the tears,”) elicit your empathy, but you can’t help but laugh at his diction, especially in the transition between his determined “I’ll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger” and the more sheepish “…though I think I might lie here a little longer.”
Such emotional contrast is a little less laughable—though no less beautiful—in “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” the song which was, incidentally, my gateway drug into the band. It’s a ballad of love and loss in the Civil War, narrated by a Union soldier’s ghost and lonely widow. I’m incapable of not singing along any time I hear it (come on, you gotta admit that it’s catchy), even when Laura Veirs laments “But you are in the ground with the voles and the weevils all achew on your bones so dry.”
Painting calamities on a canvas of joyful noise is powerful on its own, but what really makes it work is the stealth of its execution. Tom Stoppard does something similar in his plays, using crass humor and puns that are, in the words of a marvelous friend of mine, “just sleight of hand with language” to tear down your guard, and then sucker-punching you with some bleak existential truth.
It’s the same principle here. The songs are upbeat, with persistent hooks that bury themselves in your subconscious. Once the tune worms its way in, you’re vulnerable and completely unprepared for the brutal sorrow of the lyrics. The sneakier, the better: it took me several listens of “Yankee Bayonet” to realize how woeful it really is, and by then I couldn’t avoid that emotional experience; I was already too attached to the song.
You should’ve seen the look on my face when I realized mid-sentence that I’d been singing, “But oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas? All the bellies and the bones and the bile.”