A Vocabulary Lesson from The Decemberists

Cover art for The Decemberists’ new album

If you love the eccentricities and malleability of the English language, there is no better band to listen to than The Decemberists. With the impending release of their 7th studio album, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the vocabulary that makes their music so engaging, enduring, and beautiful through one of their new singles, “Lake Song”.

The Band

Over their career The Decemberists have penned many well known pop hits like, “Oh Valencia!” and more recently, “Down by the Water” but have also embarked on large, complex projects involving Japanese folklore with “The Crane Wife” and prog-rock opera with 2009's “The Hazards of Love”.

The Characters

Each song is a vignette featuring a cast of unique characters: “ne’er-do-wells”, penitent whailers, orphan chimbly sweeps, barrow boys, forest queens, vile rakes, war weary soldiers, trapeze artists, runaways, and scorned lovers. The list goes on.

The Words

Through the variation in context and character, one thing remains constant: lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy’s vast, intimate knowledge of the English language. A wordsmith of the highest caliber, Meloy strings together fantastic and often forgotten words like:

arabesques, bonhomie, bagatelles, balustrade, bosun, fecundity, tarlatan, tryst, moribund, wastrel, Charabanc, penitent, panoply, samovar, lee, Sycorax, paragon, patagon, sinews

Meloy also writes excellent, sometimes cheeky verses:

On the Bus Mall

In matching blue raincoats,
Our shoes were our show boats
We kicked around.
From stairway to station
We made a sensation
With the gadabout crowd.
And oh, what a bargain,
We’re two easy targets
For the old men at the off-tracks,
Who’ve paid in palaver
And crumpled old dollars,
Which we squirreled away
In our rat trap hotel by the freeway.
And we slept-in Sundays.

Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

And here in Spain I am a Spaniard
I will be buried with my marionettes
Countess and courtesan
Have fallen ‘neath my tender hand
When their husbands were not around
But you, my soiled teenage girlfriend
Or are you furrowed like a lioness
And we are vagabonds
We travel without seat belts on
We live this close to death

Los Angeles, I’m Yours

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 it hears
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I’m yours

The Song

In Lake Song, we find two teenagers at the end of a relationship set in the youthful romantic bastion of a lakeside. Just admire the words if you want to read as a poem(see comments on each verse on the right) or listen to the song HERE:

Down by the lake
We were overturning pebbles
And upending all the animals alight
And I took a drag
From your cigarette and pinched it
‘Tween my finger and my thumb
Till it died
And the sun burned low on the radio
Say that you will
Say you will or will you won’t
Or you whatever you prevaricate
Your whole life, don’t you?
This much I can say:
I would’ve waited till the oceans
Fell Away and all the sunken cities
Would reveal themselves to you
But you won’t, will you?
Because you never do
And the sun burned through
Sweet as honeydew
And I
Seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
Never gave a thought to what I paid
And you
All sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me, you tethered me to you
The things you would and wouldn’t do
To tell the truth I never had a clue
Now we arise
To curse those young suburban villains
And their ill-begotten children from the lawn
Come to me now
And on this station wagon window
Set the ghost of your two footprints
That they might haunt me when you’re gone
And when the light broke dawn
You were forever gone