There’re those bands that you fall in love with, listen to their records like crazy for a month or two, and then forget them forever. Then there are those bands that you fall in love with, listen to them obsessively, move on, but then rediscover again and again.
That’s Okkervil River for me.
They released an EP a few months ago that contained this gem of a tune called The President’s Dead.
Before you run off thinking it’s another anti-Bush protest song, it’s not that at all.
I’m personally not into protest songs. For every one half-decent protest song, there are 500 unbelievably boring, embarrassing, tedious ones. I don’t consider “The President’s Dead” a protest song. For one thing, it’s written from the point of view of a young Republican who is horrified at the assassination described in the song. I tried to write “The President’s Dead” as a song whose narrative and musical accompaniment feints in one direction and then goes somewhere else.
That’s what so charming about the song, it could hit you over the head Thor-Hammer style, and it starts out seeming intent on doing such, instead though, it addresses the universal aspects of a national tragedy of that sort, and then the narrator’s humble place in this world, his simple dreams.
Will Sheff starts by setting the scene, vividly.
The president’s dead, the radio said,
Dear friends, is it not so horrible?
A shot through my heart, like a knife right through bread,
The newspaper said the president’s dead.
The sea doesn’t dry and the sky doesn’t split,
But friends it just seems so wrong, don’t it?
A shot from the crowd, and a shot in the head,
The president’s lying on the tarmac dead.
Focusing on the actual scene does a nice job of staying objective and allowing the listener their own feelings and emotions instead of merely inserting the band’s right away.
He’s lying face down with his black-dressed agents
Guns drawn running around and the early Obit’s
Say he was a good man, you can’t argue with that
Not today you can’t, not now you can’t.
This is true. It’s what happens. A rush of praise. Fawning ink.
Then he sets the heartless scene where American culture steps in.
In the media tent where they spin and they slant,
They just foam at the mouth and they champ at the bit,
Those bloodsuckers can wait until those vulture’s coolin,
The newscaster said, “The President’s dead.”
Then he veers into the more universal aspects of events like this, remember, he never mentions Bush, he could be talking about Kennedy, anyone.
Let’s imagine the way, let’s say 30 years in,
How somebody will say, “What you were doing when…?”
On a beautiful day, I was waking up and
I was lying in bed with my girlfriend
And the eggs on the plate, and the bacon hissin’
And the coffee was great, there was spring on the wind.
Will Sheff has a brilliant talent for prose, for turning subtle rhymes into gorgeous melodies. I love that last image, there was spring on the wind.
More beautiful rhyme.
If you don’t live through a day for the littlest things,
And the littlest ways made you feel you were blessed
If you died right then, well you know you’d be missed,
But there’s no better state to cease to exist
And you wouldn’t feel sad, and you wouldn’t resist
Cause you knew what you had, and were thankful for it
In your own little way, I’m a small quiet man
I’ve got no wars to win, I don’t have a big plan
But I love my new place, and I love my old friends
And I scrimp and save, and one day I’ll have kids.
I guess that part is where the conservative narrator comes in. And he’s making the point, maybe, that one can be a conservative, simple values, just wanting to work hard, raise a family (which one could be liberal and ascribe to the same dream), and not having a big plan. (Bush doctrine?)
If I hadn’t read him say it himself I wouldn’t have pictured that was the case with the narrator. He seems more apolitcal than conservative, but being that it is, I actually appreciate the song more.
It’s nice to be able to slip into the other side’s shoes. Not only that, but that’s what makes good art and a good artist, being able to explore all realms of experience, not just their own.
Will Sheff sings the lyrics nonstop, without break or chorus, until it comes to a climax with this last stanza.
I can truthfully say that my day was like that,
‘Til the radio playing on the stand by the bed
Fired out this report and in 3 words they said,
Like 3 shots to my head,
Accompanied by 3 snare hits.
The President’s Dead.
He repeats this line a few times, then rocks out, then it ends abruptly but gently.
It’s a beauty.
The man has a way with words. And melody.
Not bad with the old guitar either.
See and hear it yourself.