This past weekend, I caught Ken Tucker’s review of the new Decemberists album on Fresh Air Weekend. (Dear Ken: Please, for the love of all that is holy, UPDATE THE BLOG LINK that is currently on your website. You must indicate that the now-dead version is an archive. It’s from 2009, man! Le fix.)
My gut reaction to the review was annoyance – not because I don’t agree with the bulk of it, which calls this their best album in years – but because of his dogged instance that Colin Meloy’s “cutesy,” “19th-century locutions” and “self-conscious phrasings” are a detriment to a band in need of “concision.”
For some, I daresay many, people, Meloy’s lyrics are one of the principle charms of the band’s work. One might even go so far as to say a hallmark. At this point, allow me to pause and make a couple of things clear: 1) I am merely a casual Decemberists fan, and not a crazed zealot leaping to their defense guns a-blazing, and 2) I have a noted predilection for the sort of dated diction Tucker finds so objectionable.
(In fact, pursuant to the latter point, I had a story workshopped yesterday and a classmate pointed out that my teen character used “outdated language.” Aghast at this thought, I revisited the dialogue and realized that the language was not outdated per se, but rather stylized diction/syntax in this general, twee vein. So.) (That won’t be changing in revision.)
If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie, its second act would conclude with the young Ernest [Hemingway, natch] walking into a saloon, finding an etiolated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead. The terse, declarative sentence in all its masculine hardness routed the passive involutions of a higher, denser style.
Haslett points out the enduring influence of our friends, Mm. Strunk and White: “’Do not overwrite,’ [White] instructed. ‘Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.’” It’s not that I don’t agree with this sentiment (I would not call myself a James fan, for instance). It’s just that sometimes ornamentation and excess – maximalism, if you will – can be a real pleasure to read. And from what I gather, Fish argues in his book that the form of a sentence informs its meaning and cites a host of satisfying examples, which Haslett does as well.
So back to the Decemberists. Here’s an example of the diction and syntax I think informing the meaning – this is from the Civil War ballad/duet “Yankee Bayonet” on The Crane Wife:
She: When I was a girl how the hills of Oconee/Made a seam to hem me in
He: There at the fair when our eyes caught, careless/Got my heart right pierced by a pin
Now, Tucker didn’t take up this example, so I’m just extrapolating here. But I argue that these “cutesy,” “19th-century locutions” aren’t “self-conscious phrasings” but essential: the song wants us, I think, to submerge into the world of the ballad. Plus, there’s a pleasing rhythm to it and it’s lovely.
Of course I realize that not every Decemberists song is a period piece, but I’ve already revealed my prejudice above, and I don’t think Ken Tucker could reason me out of my love for anachronistic language any more than I could persuade him of its pleasures. So I’m just agreeing to disagree with him, on my own here, across the void of the internets.
(It seems we need some kind of internet equivalent for “ears burning.” The pingback is just far too prosaic.)