A Tale of Revenge on the High Seas
by Joel Caris
Music played while writing: Two Gallants and The Decemberists
In the interest of making this column a bit more fun and lighthearted, I'm going to continue to move it more toward a conversational tone. Which means that soon I'm going to be showing up, saying hi, grabbing a beer out of the fridge and kicking my feet up on the coffee table. Staring at you. Maybe I'll ask what's up.This will go on for about ten minutes, at which point I'll realize, shit, I'm supposed to be the author here and I need to actually write something—preferably interesting or entertaining or both—and I need to do it fast, because you're about three seconds from leaving and checking out Late Night Typing. For the second time. Then I'll probably babble on about whatever I listened to on the drive over in the hopes you won't realize I'm making it up as I go, which you'll of course realize is exactly what I’m doing
So anyway, this week I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite story songs. Now, granted, most every song involves a story of some kind. But there are some songs, some artists, that like to quite literally tell a story with their songs, much as if you were sitting around a campfire with them and they were giving you a classic tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We're talking about the whole narrative package here: a protagonist and antagonist, a setting, motive, plot and theme, conflict and climax and resolution. Most songs deal in more ethereal themes or less-than-concrete proclamations of love or misery. I'm casting aside those songs for this week. Instead, I'm talking about a good, old-fashioned story set to music.
The song in question is by a band called The Decemberists, who just happen to be excellent with these types of songs. If you don't know them, they're a Portland, Oregon band who've been a bit hot on the indie scene the last couple years. They write very literary songs with an almost historical or classical wording. They have an odd style and a lead singer with a strange voice and, frankly, it works. Granted, they're a very specific taste, but if it takes for you, you're probably really going to like them.
One of my favorite songs of theirs is "The Mariner's Revenge Song" off of their album Picaresque. It's a great story song—a sea shanty, in fact—running just shy of nine minutes and backed with a jaunty accordion. Now, if you can't get behind an accordion-dominated, nine minute sea shanty, then I'm just not sure what's wrong with you. It probably has something to do with you being a normal person and not slightly crazy like me. Either way, if you have the time, I recommend you give it a listen by checking out this site, which just happens to have a handy, downloadable mp3 of it. There is much about this song that's great. The accordion is one, of course, but primarily it's the lyrics. It’s not just that they tell a story, but it's that they tell a story out of history, of a not-so-forgotten time in which men sailed the seas in wooden ships and, uh . . . whales ate people. I think it was the 1920s. Further adding to the song's charm is the lyrics, which integrate such words as "roustabout" and "magistrate". Between the Old World style lyrics, the lead singer's odd, nasally voice, the funky backing instrumentals and the storytelling aspects of it, this song seems like something that simply doesn't belong in today's music scene. It's fantastic.
The song starts with a promise of a tale:
From there, we get a straightforward and entertaining telling of a simple story in which the antagonist seduces the protagonist's poor mother, fresh off the death of her husband, bankrupts her and, ultimately, causes her death, leaving the main character homeless, parentless, and obsessed with eventually gaining revenge on the bastard roustabout.
Despite the jaunty accordion, this is a fairly dark story. The antagonist's behavior is devastating for the family, resulting in poverty and death, and the main character is obsessed with a brutal and final revenge. The protagonist does not simply occasionally think about getting his hands on the guy, either, but obsessively dwells on it, to the point of it overtaking his life at least, once he's recovered from his mother's death enough to do something other than grieve.
What's great about The Decemberists, though, is that while the subject matter of their songs can be dark, they typically are laced with humor, as well even if it can be black humor. "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is no exception. Still, as the title states, this is most definitely a song of revenge:
But never once in the employ
Meanwhile, what kind of revenge is he looking to take? Well, that’s where the darkness of the song really comes in. As his mother dies, she tells her son exactly what she wants him to do with the man who took advantage of her and put her on her deathbed, revealing that she's not a woman you should mess with:
Find him, bind him
Now that's the sort of vengeful dying wish I can appreciate. If you're going to take revenge on a person, you might as well make it cruel and memorable. Add in the fact that the main character spends years dwelling on his revenge, seeking out this guy, never forgetting his mother's dying words and waiting, years and years, until the perfect opportunity to carve his vengeance out of this guy's hide and suddenly, if you're the antagonist, this is not the person you want to end up stuck in the belly of a whale with. Which is, of course, exactly where the antagonist ends up.
As you might expect, the story does not end well for the antagonist. Much of the fun of the song, though, is the journey into the belly of the whale. It's a fun ride, but one that I'm not going to reveal to you here. You'll just have to go listen to the song, or else google the lyrics for yourself, if you want to know all the details. I recommend listening to the song though. Sure, it's nine minutes of accordion, but there's also people being devoured by a whale and a dark and tragic tale culminating with a harsh and satisfying revenge. It's a top notch story song, and we need more of those in the world.
Joel is currently recording an album called Accordion Songs for Whales To Make Love To