Music as Poetry: The Decemberists

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For this week’s poetry analysis, I’d like to turn once again to music as a poetic form. As Professor Jones pointed out in her comment on my Bruce Springsteen post, not all music can be considered poetry. Music, we decided, can be poetic if the words have been chosen carefully and for a distinct purpose. Music can’t necessarily be deemed “poetry” only if you admire the beat and it’s fun to dance to. Music becomes poetry when the words convey something important to us and when talented songwriters have taken the time to craft each verse, chorus, and bridge.

With all this in mind, I present to you this week’s “music as poetry” selection — Los Angeles, I’m Yours by The Decemberists.

The Decemberists are a fairly recent band (the past ten years) who are of the genre known as “indie.” Generally, I understand indie music to be not mainstream, not following the most trendy of trends in music (i.e. auto-tuning) and often being sold by small-time record producers rather than the large, corporate record machines. The Decemberists are from Oregon and they sing about a lot of different things, incorporating very interesting words and images into their songs.

Frankly, I consider all of the Decemberists’ music to be poetic. They always have such interesting images and very realized lyrics in their songs. But, today I’d like to look at Los Angeles, I’m Yours. My brother and I often refer to this song as “the vocabulary song” because of all the amazingly complex words the Decemberists managed to fit into the rhythm of the song. So, here are the lyrics of the song:

Los Angeles, I’m Yours by the Decemberists

There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you

Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs are here
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore
Los Angeles, I’m yours

O ladies pleasant and demure
Sallow-cheeked and sure
I can see your undies
And all the boys you drag about
An empty fallow fount
From Saturdays to Mondays

You hill and valley crowd
Hanging your trousers down at heel
This is the realest thing
As ancient choirs sing
A dozen blushing cherubs wheel above
Los Angeles, my love

Oh, what a rush of ripe élan
Languor on divans
Dalliant and dainty
But oh, the smell of burnt cocaine
The dolor and decay
It only makes me cranky

O great calamity
Ditch of iniquity and tears
How I abhor this place
Its sweet and bitter taste
Has left me wretched, retching on all fours
Los Angeles, I’m yours
Los Angeles, I’m yours
Los Angeles, I’m yours

(Note:  the link in the title of the song takes you to a truly impressive music video for this song that lends a great visual element to the song.)

For some reason, in all the years that I’ve listened to and admired this song, I had never connected the lyrics to the message so clearly conveyed in this animated music video — Los Angeles is about a disgusting overload of consumption. Now that I have that idea in my head, though, I can definitely see it coming through in the lyrics.

The lead singer, Colin Meloy, sings of the “hollowness” of L.A., describing it as teeming with “orphans and oligarchs” alike. I love the way he describes the beachfront, a big draw for tourists and residents as filled with “an ocean’s garbled vomit.” As the song goes on, there is a consistent theme of the lovely juxtaposed with ugly images. Meloy describes the “ladies pleasant and demure / Sallow-cheeked and sure” and follows that with the frank and almost crass line, “I can see your undies.”

The second to last verse is a  virtual cornucopia of interesting words and images. Meloy uses succulent vocabulary such as, “a rush of ripe élan / Languor on divans / Dalliant and dainty.” All of those images convey a feeling of excess and decadence. Immediately following that overindulgent language, Meloy sings of  “the smell of burnt cocaine” that “only makes me cranky.”

The final verse holds my absolute favorite line, the one I like to sing along to and add an extra oomf to. Meloy sings, “How I abhor this place  / Its sweet and bitter taste / Has left me wretched, retching on all fours.” I love the repetition of “wretched” and “retching” right after one another.

I consider Los Angeles, I’m Yours to be poetry because all of the lyrics seem, to me, fully realized and carefully crafted into their current form. Also, I know a bit about the band and Meloy is basically a poet in a singer’s body.
I love the way he writes and I love all of the Decemberists’ songs, but Los Angeles, I’m Yours would be the song to stick out at me if you asked me to choose a “poetic” song from them.

If you’re interested in the Decemberists, they have one of the most unique and intriguing music videos that I’ve seen for another one of their songs: 16 Military Wives. This song is one of my favorites as well because of the rather explicit political message embedded in the hilarious and saddening lyrics. The music video, though, puts a whole new spin on it. If you like Los Angeles, I’m Yours and what I had to say about it, I’d encourage you to check out 16 Military Wives as well. Of course, I must warn you, the song contains lyrics and ideas that some might consider “un-American” and “unpatriotic.” I think they’re intriguing and thought-provoking.

What do you think about Los Angeles, I’m Yours? Do you think it’s an example of poetic music? Let’s continue the conversation — what is poetic music? What constitutes it?

— Jet Fuel Editor, Mary Egan

2 thoughts on “Music as Poetry: The Decemberists

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