Time to break this Seventies streak.
It’s summer now for real. And I’ve never been very partial to July, except for the fact that there’s no school when you’re a kid. It’s the month that parallels January, another month I’m not too big on. But that parallel causes me to reflect that on 22 January I posted about a song called “Winter,” in the midst of a serious cold wave. So why not a song “about” July here at the center of the summer?
The Decemberists were a big indie discovery in the early Aughts. Today’s song is the first song I ever heard by the band, on a disc of tunes my student Lauren gave me in 2007. The song sent me in search of other music of theirs, and that led me to what is still my favorite album of theirs, Castaways and Cutouts (2002). Colin Meloy’s lyrics are almost too literate at times, a wealth of verbiage and fanciful situations. It had been awhile since I’d encountered someone with such a knack for turning a phrase.
Meloy’s singing put me in mind, oddly enough, of David Byrne. Not because there’s much in common in their style, but in the way that the voice was so unique in its particularity, in a delivery that was unmistakeable, and, at first, a bit off-putting. Meloy has a certain flatness of affect, always. And yet there’s a lot of spirit to his songs. They’re mostly comical—jaunty ditties, shanties and the like—often with the flair of Brit folk that I like so much. The band is from Portland, and Meloy hails from Montana, but they must’ve put in some time with classic folk.
“July, July” is fairly unique among The Decemberists’ material, as far as I can tell. The albums I know are Castaways, Picaresque (2005), The Hazards of Love (2009) and The King is Dead (2011). I’ve seen them perform twice—once at Spring Fling at Yale and once at Terminal 5 in NYC, the night after Obama got elected. That was a pretty up night and fun performance.
From my first encounter with the song I liked the way it comes bubbling in, and the chorus, “July, July, July / It never seemed so strange” felt full of youthful good cheer. For some reason, the song and the band seemed swaddled in indie-cred. It was a time of searching out the offbeat with the idea that every region must have its top products—Athens, GA; Seattle, WA; Chicago, IL . . . why not Portland, OR, why not Austin, TX . . . It was their time.
It never seemed so, it never seemed so stray-yay-yay-yange. Infectious, in an oddball way.
But what really charmed me about the song’s lyrics was the specificity and randomness of this verse:
And we'll remember this when we are old and ancient / Though the specifics might be vague / And I'll say your camisole was a sprightly, light magenta / When, in fact, it was a nappy bluish gray
The idea of growing old and trying to remember youth appeals to me, obviously. Surrounded often by college age kids, it’s easy to think in terms of their youthful times and one’s own. There’s a great distance between the eras but not the ages. Twentysomething is twentysomething. And in Meloy’s youthful voice (28 when this album came out) delivering such glibly apt images—the contrast between “sprightly, light magenta” and “nappy bluish gray”—one hears that insouciant acceptance of whatever is. Being young is like that. To see that there’s a difference between the “magenta” that he projects himself recalling and the “bluish gray” of the real camisole is to see the difference between a chosen image and an actual one. But what Meloy grasps is that “the specifics might be vague”—which is a throwaway in the sense that neither “specific” is “vague,” rather their relationship is. The comparison, we might say, is purely verbal, despite the fact that they create different visuals. He’s riffing on the possibilities of “recall,” allegedly, but one senses neither is actual. Unless you want to believe in the girl in the nappy bluish gray camisole. Which is fine with me. Me, I’m all for believing in what the imagination furnishes whenever it chooses not to be “vague.”
This is the story of the road that goes to my house
And what ghosts there do remain
Meloy is a writer whose material often touches on matters that appeal to my imagination (still on the trail of ghosts, one way or another). Other times, like the mention of the gut-shot French Canadian, the songs incorporate stories and figures that almost overwhelm one's identification, at least for me. And yet Meloy has a great ability to match a melodic line to a verbal line that got and kept my attention for a while. The King is Dead was, in some ways, their strongest overall album, but it's not likely they'll match again the dreaming awake quality that captivates me in their first full-length album.