The Decemberists

The Decemberists

One of my standards when it comes to music is how long it can keep me riveted and on repeat. I first heard Sixteen Military Wives playing at the Outcrop office* four full years ago, and with encouragement from S, I copied the Picaresque album. From then on, the Decemberists were one of the mainstays on my music player. It wasn’t until several months ago, however, when I realized just how much the Decemberists had to offer. Armed with a laptop and an iPod with 120 gigabytes of free space, I started updating the artists in my music library. Lo and behold, the Decemberists had managed to produce more than a handful of albums – and my fascination continued.

Range. California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade spans close to ten full minutes, but listening to the song feels as natural as the images of long straight highways on mythical Californian lands that I have never been to. Similar to the imagery of endless deserts, vineyards rife with California grapes, and a sun that unhurriedly rises and descends between a girl named Annabel and the narrator, the song takes its own sweet time in developing a calming ambience that all but prepares you for the next part of the song – the Youth and Beauty Brigade. At this point, the song takes an unexpected yet completely complementary turn towards the tale of a group of ‘cutouts and castaways’ who have freed themselves from ‘debts to society’ by paying their ‘overdue fines at the Multnomah County Library.’ There is no use questioning the sudden shift in the story, after having been subdued and softened by California One.

In California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade, the Decemberists hint at the range of emotions that their music can evoke. Laid back and unhurried one moment, the listener is softly if suddenly flung into a call for the marginalized to a sort of self-realization and self-acknowledgement in the form of the Youth and Beauty Brigade. From the lazy California sun and sweetly flowing California wine, the Brigade erupts as a subversion of social norms and constructs that have kept the misfits unfitting and unable to integrate into society. More importantly, the Brigade opens up possibility for the marginalized, a future for the unrecognized, a place for the misplaced – “Nothing will stand in our way.”

Wordplay, language, and lyrics. In a world where many of the popular musicians’ vocabulary have been reduced to ‘love,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘girl,’ Meloy’s lyrics provide a return to the forgotten poetry that was once presupposed in music. whether plucking terms and contexts from faraway lands such as in Constantinople and from historical events such as in When the War Came, or simply crocheting a story of a legionnaire lamenting about homesickness and a dehydrated land, Meloy’s language and lyrics evoke images, stories, emotions, and sometimes, a need for a dictionary. The wording in Cocoon is nothing short of cocooned, but combined with the music and Meloy’s voice, becomes something short of revelatory with each line. In Of Angels and Angles, the lyrics tell the story by jumping from one image to the next, which by themselves cannot stand, but taken as a whole, creates a dreamlike trance that creates a logic where drowning and going down away is an unquestionable conclusion.

Stories. Though the Decemberists are not the first to capitalize on stories woven into music, they have shown much effort and ambition in incorporating plots and tales into their songs. Whether talking about runaway prostitutes sleeping in on Sundays and constructing a family out of each other on the bus mall, athletes at the heart of defeat, soldiers finding life and love with fellow soldiers on the battlefield, or bandit queens and the people who love them, the Decemberists manage to tell tales without sounding like an auto tuned podcast. Clearly, not every musician can move beyond the typical stanza-chorus-refrain-stanza formula and into plot-based stories. The Decemberists, though, pull it off flawlessly. And with the Hazards of Love, the Decemberists managed to expand a fantastical plot about maidens who have fallen in love with wood creatures to cover not just one song, but an entire album.

With almost ten albums, a number of collaborations and interpretations, an attempt to sum up the Decemberists is nothing short of gargantuan a challenge. Just as the narrator can forgive a son forced to leave his mother out in the woods in I Don’t Mind, I trust that the Decemberists won’t mind if my accolade ends here.

Last Message

It was stupid to begin with, is the only way you begin these things. You never believed yourself that there was any chance. But there was never any chance anywhere else, so you did it anyway, did that one thing that hurts more boys like you more than anything else – believe in the chance.

It’s funny how many fags like you thought of the chances. The chances that never came. A chance meeting in the street – maybe the two of you had eyes locked on each other on the jeepney on your way to school – and maybe you spent the next seven days waiting at the same stop at the same hour, hoping that he will come back and wondering whether the eyes will touch once again and perhaps something more. You know – or tell yourself – from the start that it will never amount to anything. You know – or tell yourself – that you are only indulging yourself with thoughts that, anyway, come less than a dime a dozen. But on the seventh day, on the eleventh hour, before the clock strikes midnight and the shoes of glass break down, you still feel … what?

The problem with stories is that they are not real. I can tell you the story of the Rome, of Jesus Christ, of America, of the farmers who reaped the rice I ate for lunch. But in the end, it will only be a story for you – and for me. Memories. And memories, by default, are the places where I am not. And the place where you are no longer in, does it exist? And hope and dreams are all stories. So I tell myself that if I tell him I loved him, he might tell the words back. But chances, opportunities, possibilities, are all stories.

I found this guy once. I found him once, and we talked until my room was cushioned in cigarette smoke to ward off the cold night as we talked for hours and hours without ever hearing the other’s voice. It was enchanting, all the possibilities, all the stories that are so easy to make up with an empty face and an unheard voice, untouched skin, and unfelt body. He told me what he cooked, whom he loved, how he worked, and how cold it was on the other end of the line, on the other side of the computer screen.

Days later, I check my mail. It’s been weeks, and there was no response. Another cigarette and another morning in front of the computer screen. This time, I will not search for another chat, I will not search for another story. This time, I will clear the cache and Chrome’s memory. This time, I will ban the site, and … wait. Wait for a message in my mail, until I have waited long enough to be sure that I have found him once. And that it only takes once to lose him again.

The Blueberry Pie Chronicles

“There’s nothing wrong with the Blueberry Pie … It’s just – no one wants it.”

One night, in between the Appletini that we smuggled into school and the second pack of cigarettes, you and him walked away. I think there were plenty of people in the office that night, and the two or three cups that held the punch had probably touched more lips than any mythical Burnham whore, and the music must have been loud – or at least the voices – from the people squirming and doing everything to make Pasik seem worthwhile. It must have been cold, I must have been sleepy. But all I could see was the two of you walking away, the fluorescent bulb at the end of the walkway transforming the two of you into silhouettes.

There must have been other people holding hands, holding knives, smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, crying, laughing, and living, all last night. But that night, all I could remember was the silhouette, and how I won’t fit in between those contours even if I waited another year. So when the fireworks finally went on display, I was the first to dash out of the office and hope that maybe there are symbols powerful enough to make reality bow down – the colorful drops of fire commanding you to leave me alone at last and summon you to whistle into the December night and flare into something whose beauty will be gone after a heartbeat. You will, however, not burst into fire – no matter how many colors that fire can have – precisely because you never had to leave me alone. After all, you can’t leave where you never got, in the first place.

I always thought that I was the blueberry pie*, but that night I realized that I’m the baker who’s equally foolish for baking them. You never told me anything, even after I told you the three words that made you everything. But seeing the two of you walk away, I think I’ll stop the Cinderella charade where I’m forcing the shoe to fit. Glass slippers, after all, are not just beautiful. They also will not wear in.

*Blueberry Nights, Wong Kar Wai

Century Sunrises

Half an hour ago on Yahoo, “Brittany Murphy Dead at Age 32” was the banner. At 8:19 in the morning, the banner’s about a ‘groundbreaking cellphone law.’ Should I feel bad that it took her less than half a day to go from banner to sideline? Or should I already dismiss her as lucky enough to land a final fifteen minutes of fame in cyberspace? It’s almost nine in the morning and I haven’t slept. There’s tons of work for starving students like me who have no other option than to whore out brains for the BS of globalization – I told myself I would never join a call center and now I’m doing content writing. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have gone to a call center office – at least then I’d have access to the hot homos that I imagine lurk between the call center cubicles and the Starbucks stools where they spend their money.

It’s almost nine in the morning and I haven’t slept. If I sleep now, I’m afraid I might not be able to finish all the articles that I have to write. Might get kicked out of the job, and I want to say fuck yeah get me out of that hell hole. But what can you do when the bills keep coming in and the electricity line’s three inches away from the knife?

It’s morning and I haven’t slept and all I can think of is how quick everything has become. Brittany died last night, and a few hours later the sun was up before I could even notice that the light in my room was no longer the tungsten blue from the fluorescent bulb, but the creamy white from the sun. Somewhere between the countless transitions from tungsten to cream, I also forgot that it didn’t even always had to be cream.

Once, I remember the sunrise was pale blue like the eyes of the models that I loved and wanted to love me on television. Or purplish red like the crayons that came in huge boxes from aunts living in the United States. There’s something about the smell of a balikbayan box that you never forget. There’s that first world scent, and they say not to call it first world but I say go ahead – let the hierarchy be as emphasized as possible because to relegate it to the sidelines will only be to deny it and to act as if we’re all fine and dandy when we’re not – we’re fucked.

If Brittany was here with me today, I’d tell her that once, it took centuries for the sun to rise. That once, midnight was as distant as unheard-of places like Kalinga and Abra and Bontoc – now, though, I’ve been to Kalinga, Abra, and Bontoc. If Brittany was here with me today, I’d tell her that once, I could cry, sing, dance, walk naked, and get drunk for millenias that lived between the 11s and 12s in a clock, as its’ hands took their own sweet time from one hour to the other, one minute to the next, one second meaning more than just a second, but the birth of a moment.

Today, each second is born without reverence. Today, the only times I remember the new moments is when I’m adjusting the alarm on my computer so that I won’t wake up at four in the afternoon after sleeping at nine in the morning – again. If Brittany was here with me today, I’d tell her that once, when I was younger, the world would have dragged to a crawl just to watch her go.

The day I knew you’d not come back

My little secret:
before I sleep,
I imagine all the ways
through which fate brings us together
– at a chance encounter in Session Road,
in a little coffee shop,
in quaint bookstores that only exist in the silver screen,
or in the herb garden that could never live in this city –
and make you realize that I am beautiful,
that I am good.
After a year and a half
of pining and waiting,
I finally sent you a message.
In 250 words,
more or less,
that was not so much for you
as it was for me.
That I am finally conceding,
accepting the long overdue defeat.
And tonight,
I tried to imagine all of the ways
through which fate could have brought us together.
And not a single image came to mind.

Paolo and the Nonexistent Night

We wish that what will happen is something beyond anyone’s understanding. The entire romance behind the idea of the future is the possibility of breathing life into that which does not exist – all the hopes and wishes tucked so carefully into the dark folds of the mind, in sublimely soft parts of the gray matter that language cannot even reach and which you cannot even tell to your closest friends.

There are, however, forecasts set in stone, blatant and unassailable like tears on dry and cold December days. Like how I saw the title of your profession engraved before your name on some oak office door in the future, even before I knew what you were called. We did not speak as we passed each other on the way to the law library, and we had no common acquaintances. But I’ve heard about your big-shot lawyer of a father, and I can see in the comfortable and assured way you walk, talk, and wear your clothes that you knew. You were going to be an attorney.

You knew, we knew. You were going to be a lawyer, your soft and boyish features will wrinkle and fatten as you drive a future car from your Session Road office into court, as you write your pleadings behind solid desks on top of which perches your name written in a heavy piece of mahogany, as you sip your scotch after a successful trial. But not before you find a suitable woman to marry, to have children with. You knew, we knew. You will buy your own home, buy your second car, send your children through college, through graduate school, through law school, and will give them trust funds for their birthday.

When I left your apartment, my chest still wet from your sweat and my back still dry from the now-moist bed, you knew that I knew that we will never mention it even in the drunkest of binges, even between the closest of friends, even to ourselves. You knew that I will walk away without a fight, without clamors for rights that have never been vested between hopeful homosexuals and the married law students who send unannounced, unanticipated, but wished-for messages to come, at 11:29 in the evening, do not tell anyone, it’s a secret between us, I trust you, promise me? And I come, and you come repeatedly, because the both of us know that the moments last only under the shelter of night. That when dawn breaks, none will be excused to speak of falsehoods. Falsehoods – the fingers lost in your mouth, the breaths drawn as one, bodies unlawfully conjoined. There are no sins on cold and lonely nights that forgive trespasses committed in order to survive. But when dawn breaks and the misty night withdraws, the laws are revived.

Dawn broke early, we did not sleep. Before the night ended, you brewed tea. I sipped until the few minutes of dawn. And by the time I left – early, early, early, before anyone but the first rays could see – you could no longer see me, I may no longer see you, your wife will return from her trip to Manila, you don your slacks and tie, your heterosexuality is reinstated, and the laws are revived.

I was tired the day the laws were revived, because the resurrection invalidated the night, without which I was sleepless.