“I’m a legionnaire, camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by.”
And so begins yet another great track off The Decemberists’ debut album, “Castaways and cutouts”*. I got into this album and the following year’s sophomore album simultaneously, perhaps sometime in 2004, after reading about them in my favourite indie music magazine ‘Under the radar’.
I remember being immediately blown away by the songwriting of Colin Meloy. Being a word geek myself, I loved the wordplay and use of archaic terms and thought it hilarious that I found myself reaching for the dictionary when listening to the lyrics of a pop song, indie or not. But it was not just the choice of words that won me over. It was how Meloy employed them, creating worlds and weaving tales, vivid and imaginative and just so much fun. And then there was the music, indie rock with a folk rock flavour, sampling music from around the world, and not just evoking that of today, but from different points in time throughout history.
The Decemberists have gone on to make eight studio albums in total and a handful of EPs, and successfully navigated the jump from indie to the majors without losing an ounce of what made them great. Every one of their songs is an adventure and you would be hard-pressed to tell me that they are one of those bands whose songs all sound the same.
“The legionnaire’s lament”, despite its title, is an upbeat number. It was the song that first hooked my wife Victoria to the group and is one to which we both love to sing along. And though the words can be esoteric and the specific experience unfamiliar – that of a French Foreign Legion soldier stranded in the desert, his plane shot down in battle in a war over a hundred years ago – the sentiment of missing his love and his home is universal and instantly recognizable.
“If only some rain would fall on the houses and the boulevards and the sidewalk bagatelles (it’s like a dream). With the roar of cars and the lolling of the cafe bars and the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine. Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again.”
Our protagonist is faithfully represented by an angry and forceful strum on the acoustic, the mirage of a jaunty drum beat and playful electric guitar lick, but what really places you in the tune and perfects the feeling of homesickness for Paris is the frolicking accordion. So good.
*”July July” from this same album appeared earlier, at number nineteen, on this list.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.