Immigration, Fear & Complicity: A Closer Reading of Mandolin Orange’s “The Wolves”

Last week, NPR released their Tiny Desk Concert of Chapel Hill, NC duo Mandolin Orange. Their three song set included the track “The Wolves” from their most recent album, Tides of a Teardrop. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year, and one that deals with important issues of our moment. But music writers aren’t reading the lyrics.

In Bob Boilen’s article highlighting the performance I was surprised to read a brief description of the song that came to a similar conclusion as a Rolling Stone article about the song in January. Boilen says the song “is a story song that, for me, tells a tale on an older woman’s life, the ‘hard road’ she’s taken and that feeling of wanting to howl at the moon when all is finally right.”

And while I understand that lyrics, like poetry, are open to interpretation, this one feels woefully off-base and diminishes the timely import of Andrew Marlin’s words.

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A (not so) subtle clue to the song’s meaning is included on the Spotify track.

Unfortunately, what both of these critics miss is that the “old woman” being described is the Statue of Liberty. And once you have that understanding, the meaning of the song shifts dramatically.

In the second verse, Marlin sings:

There she stands, so tall and mighty
With her keen and watchful eye
And the heart of a mother
Holding out her guiding light

And in verse three we learn who the wolves are:

There she stands, so tall and mighty
Her gaze facing the east
At her back, our doors are closing
As we grin and bare our teeth

We are the wolves. We — Americans — are the wolves. And this is what makes the chorus so heartbreaking. When I hear the first-person refrain, “Everything’s so great, it can’t get better, makes me wanna cry. But I’ll go out howling at the moon tonight.” I hear someone struggling with their own complicity, with their identity as an American.

American folk music has a long history as political speech, which is why it is surprising to read multiple critics misinterpret this song. This isn’t a nostalgic song about aging, this is a song about now, about the United States turning away the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Read the full lyrics for “The Wolves.”

Written by

Arts + Tech at @knightfdn. In general: interested in how human culture is shared though media, art and information systems. Appalachian.

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