The Passenger #5


The Decemberists have had to work very hard to make me a fan. I found them first a few years ago with their second full-length album, Her Majesty The Decemberists. It registered a few spins, but the combination of Colin Meloy’s gratingly high and nasal voice and the relative austerity of the band kept it from becoming part of my collection.

Their next album, Picaresque, fared somewhat better with me. The sound got bigger and the songs seemed more confident. Meloy still had a voice that was by no means mellifluous, but he sang anyway. As with Bob Dylan and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, whose voices have always been the largest obstacles to their more popular success, the focus moves to the lyrics and the story being told.

The Decemberists are a concept band, the concept being that they are and create music for history nerds. Their songs are marked by both their subjects—long-forgotten historical events and eras—and their terminology—archaic words and expressions. I can’t imagine anyone but myself and a few fans of 19th century literature getting excited when a rock star sings:

Among five score pachyderm / Each canopied and passengered / Sit the duke and the duchess's luscious young girls / Within sight of the baroness / Seething spite for this live largesse / By her side sits the baron / Her barrenness barbs her / And we'll all come praise the infanta

Rock music has been overblown and silly at least as far back as Led Zeppelin’s heavy metal Bilbo Baggins minstrelsy, and Nick Cave has been treading some of this ground for years (and—God love him—no one sounds sillier than Nick Cave when he overdoes it). What is affecting about The Decemberists is that after all the ironic winking, they really believe in their music.

Their last record, The Crane Wife, was a giant leap forward. Finally, the music matched the bombast and emotionalism of the lyrics, and there is enough going on to balance out Meloy’s high-range voice. It’s big, pompous, and prog-rock, and all kind of silly, but the commitment of the musicians and the idea of the band carries it all to a satisfying triumph.

The songs are terrific. Much more than simple verse-chorus-verse, the band goes for the operatic, especially on the long and revelatory track “The Island: Come And See / The Landlord’s Daughter / You’ll Not Feel The Drowning”, a grandiloquent feat of storytelling that succeeds enormously, both in lyric and music, in drawing emotion and transporting the listener.

Many of the other tracks are perfect radio pop, four-minute bits of jaunty vocals and guitars and backbeat, and all delivered by that same band who revel in tales of Olde Brittania and wicked turns of phrase. Most songs come loaded with some line of power that, no matter what the lyrics are about, hold us and carry the song away. In “O Valencia”, a tale of star-crossed lovers, a grieving Meloy sings, “I swear to the stars / I’ll burn this whole city down”.

I could only find a video for “O Valencia”, and I am reluctant to include it. Isolated, it gives no sense of the majesty of The Crane Wife, where the song is sandwiched between two other light, but consequential, pop songs, as some trilogy to match the earlier “The Island” and the three parts of “The Crane Wife” cycle.

It’s all terrific fun, but, more than that, you leave it with some sense of experience—a heady stew of history, literature, and humanity. The conviction The Decemberists bring to the album cannot be denied, or resisted.


The Maytrees, a new novel by Annie Dillard, stole my breath with nearly each line. It is a short book, thank goodness, and even with that it exhausted me before it was finished. Ms. Dillard wrote the novel in a style cribbed and evolved from Hemingway: short, terse sentences that are meant to stand for whole sentiments and arguments. She said that where one word could stand for two, it would, and where one syllable could stand for two, it would. Before she published it, she cut it down from 1,200 pages to 200.

What is left from that decade-in-the-writing epic is a tale of a few people, especially Toby Maytree and Lou Bigelow, who live and fall in love on old Cape Cod, back before the rich people moved in. They’re beach bums, hardly ever working, only reading books (he non-fiction, she fiction) and learning and watching the stars from the dunes. They have friends and they drink most nights and later they have a baby.

To tell this story, Ms. Dillard must tell the story of all of us. Her lines are poetry, tiny revelations, an old woman’s wisdom laid over a tale of young people (who later get wonderfully old). In the middle of reading it, I wished I could read it aloud with my girl. I nightly sent her my favorite passages:

Their bed’s frame was old pipe metal, ironstone. Lou Maytree painted its arched headboard and footboard white. Every few years she sanded its rust rosettes and painted it white again. This was about as useful as she got, though she stretched a dollar for food. One could divide their double bed into her side and his side by counting four pipes over, but the two ignored parity. He slept with a long leg flung over her, as a dog claims a stick.
Once while he slept on his side, his legs thrashed and he panted. She pressed his shoulder.
Chasing a rabbit?
He exhaled and said, tap-dancing.

There is this one, too, about Deary, a free spirit who marries often:

Lou and Maytree both liked a recent suitor of Deary’s. That was articulate Slow Sykes, who wore green shoes and held down third base. A serious painter in oils, he also read good books. He always showed up for sunset drinks on Maytrees’ beach, and acted out a new joke or two a day. Lou heard at once when, within two hours of Deary’s marrying him, the new groom motored from Fisherman’s Pier for their honeymoon cruise without her. Later Lou visited Deary’s cold-storage shed and saw by lamplight the letter this gentleman wrote on linen bond. He apologized and sought divorce as kindly as possible. He noted in apparent misery that he had realized on the pier, for the second time on their one wedding day, how long it took a woman to change clothes. Deary found that sensible, and told the story on herself, laughing helplessly and anew each time. She was, Cornelius said, easily amused.

There is philosophy in there, and art and science, and there is always the presence of Annie Dillard, author. I didn’t mind it so much, because she writes such lovely lines and has such lovely things to say. That the style, and her voice, could not keep up the terrific pace set at the start, or that I became tired of so much wisdom, does not diminish the work so much as give a reason to revisit it later.


Nearly nothing happens in Once, a movie musical made on a shoestring budget in Dublin. It’s just that the nothing that happens is so honest, so perfect, that is seems magic. And when something does happen, small as it is, it’s glorious.

The film tells the tale of an Irish songwriter busking on the streets of Dublin, poor and sad as we expect our Irish poets to be, and his nervous and unlikely romance with a Czech flower-seller. I hesitate to call it a romance; the entire film is a flirtation with romance. We are primed as moviegoers to expect instant love and happily ever after, but Once doesn’t go for such easy fireworks.

The characters slowly open up to each other, asking questions and moving in. They have both had their hearts broken and neither is looking for love. Their tenuous relationship even allows them to cheer the other on when they want to reunite with old lovers. But they think of each other, and wonder about love, and connect in just that easy way when we still see our salvation in another person, just before we really get to know them.

Their connection is especially evident when they make music together. Their first song together plays like a dance: he shows her a song and she quickly learns the piano part. They start off quietly, feeling their way, but confidence comes and they blast the song out, he howling and she singing soft harmonies. It’s a wondrous magic not everyone knows, the immediate connection of musicians, and the film translates it perfectly.

The film’s success relies both on its honesty in telling a small story and in its casting of real musicians as the leads. Glen Hansard is the singer/guitarist of the band The Frames, a group that have been around since Hansard was one of The Commitments, but have not yet received their due. Mark√©ta Irglov√° is a Czech singer who teamed with Hansard for the soundtrack of another film project, Beauty In Trouble, for which many of Once’s songs were written.

The songs are terrific—melodic and powerful—and when the two come together with a backing band in the film’s climactic scenes, their power mixed with the emotion in the performances could move the coldest heart, even one long frozen to the idea of movie love.

I appreciate films like this, which show some real life outside of mine, in some real city I do not know, and do it truthfully. I am sometimes weary of so much fantasy and only want to know how others do this. Once is required viewing for musicians and poets and lovers.


Leaving The Wire, perhaps the greatest television drama of all time, and whose final season airs next year, Battlestar Galactica is the best drama on television. Leave your prejudices at the door and remember that TIME magazine named it the best show of the year two years ago. It’s even better now, its blend of politics and action—think The West Wing in space—more powerful and more timely than anything else on TV.

Each episode seems dedicated to some moral question other shows—and politicians—refuse to ask: religion, terrorism, occupation, insurgency, due process of law, genocide, and the consequences of our actions. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell are consistently outstanding, he the military man, she the politician, as they try to preserve order in a defeated and divided state.

The combat scenes are better and more exciting than those in most movies. They are directed with a real sense of kinetics and clarity; they are not mere filler or sci-fi badge. The entire show looks more expensive than it is, with giant sets and outdoor locations and competent, often terrific, special effects.

The secret is in the story and where the writers are willing to go. One season ended with a jump one year into the future, in which the milieu was changed so drastically as to become a different show. The characters are capable of making dreadful mistakes that will alter them forever. The thread running through the show is its morality, its presenting situations as a way to work them through dialectically. People aren’t good or bad, only people, and the show is interested in finding out what that means and how we can make it work.


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