Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Hey Henry, can you hear me?

Returning to writing about specific lyrics, here's a nice simple one.

The Decemberists are not known for being a simple band, though. They've released seven full albums and they're acclaimed for highly literate, theatrical, lengthy stories in song, 8 minutes of The Mariner's Revenge Song, the 11-minute Crane Wife 1 and 2, the hour long concept album of The Hazards of Love. Glorious conceits, an acquired taste which gradually became more and more successful.

The frontman Colin Meloy has enjoyed an alternative career as an acclaimed children's author - as he sings in one of the band's finest songs The Engine Driver "I am a writer, writer of fictions ...". And, so he is. Not that poignancy is entirely absent from his lyrics, but it's a long way from confessional. I'm pretty certain there is not a single confessional moment in the first 5 Decemberists album. It's all a wonderful hoot.

The sixth album is 'The King is Dead'. The third song is 'Rise to Me'. A slow, grand tune. The first verse is about mountains and rivers, their permanence and strength. There's nothing really unusual in terms of Decemberist songs.

Then the start of the next verse ...
"Hey Henry, can you hear me?
Let me see those eyes
This distance, between us
Can seem a mountain size
But boy, you are gonna stand your ground
They rise to you you'll blow them down
Let me see you stand your ground
They rise to you you'll blow them down"

A man who has not given one little thing away in several years of successful recorded music, then this ... Henry is his son with autism.

It's just a gut punch, a completely unexpected moment of naked communication. It never fails to move me. Even without the context, it's a moving song, about nature, about strength, about love and parenthood.

Like Brief Encounter, or the solitary tear moving slowly down the cheek of the stoic, it's moments like this, rather than regulation emotional splurges from the usual show-offs, which are the most moving.

Songs can and should stand alone, but the nature of song allows real life to intrude, and with powerful effect. I've been loving 'Nobody's Empire' by Belle and Sebastian too recently, the most autobiographical and triumphant song Stuart Murdoch's written.

There are so many ways Colin Meloy could have slightly hidden the context of this song, but he had no intention of doing so "Hey Henry, can you hear me?" Without second-guessing him too much, surely he wrote this, so far out of his songwriting comfort zone, to burst out, to genuinely achieve what the question is asking. We're almost eavesdropping, but he's letting us.

Anyway, here's a live version.