“Charlie Darwin” is a song I can’t switch off, can’t skip over, can’t ignore. If it comes up on my iPod’s shuffle, I stop whatever I’m doing and I listen. If I stumble across it while scavenging through my music library, I have to click to play it. It immediately overrides any musical mood I may find myself in: and lately I am getting the strangest musical cravings– all of a sudden I’ll be jonesing some crunchy thrash metal, or Coltrane tackling a standard, or a Shostakovich quartet– or, lately, and inexplicably, any Pearl Jam song sung by rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard. I’m like the melomaniac equivalent to a pregnant lady, with strange and seemingly random cravings (disclaimer: everything I know about pregnancy I’ve learned from American sitcoms). Anyway, the point is, any time I come across this song, I am overtaken by a wave of calm. And I listen.
The Low Anthem is a band I know criminally little about. I know they come from Rhode Island. I know they’ve released four albums. I know they play a profoundly affecting (and also sometimes wildly exciting) brand of emotional folk music that’s decidedly steeped in tradition while also maintaining a fresh, unique approach by incorporating creative instrumentation and unusual arrangements. I know that I need to own more of their music, and that the one album of theirs that I own– 2008’s “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”– is a marvelous piece of work. I know that everybody I’ve introduced to them has end up becoming a fan, and that this record came remarkably close to appearing in my “best albums of the 2000s” countdown, missing the cut only because I liked every other album in that list slightly more.
While the album is filled with gems– from muted folk songs like the swoonworthy “Ticket Taker” to third-act denouement ballads like “To The Ghosts Who Write History Books” to rousing romps like the Tom Waits-inspired “The Horizon is a Beltway” (which is immediately followed by an actual Tom Waits cover, “Home I’ll Never Be”)– to me, the strongest song in the record is its gorgeous, delicate, relentlessly sad sort-of-title-track, “Charlie Darwin”. A masterfully composed (and performed… and recorded) broken-down sea shanty that somehow conveys a soothing calm as well as a crushing feeling of dread and helplessness, the creeping stillness of death and decay. Whoa, this got dark all of a sudden. Picture break!
When I first heard this song, I was amazed by the disconnect between the music and its lyrical content. The song is a major-chord lullaby, of sorts, with an uplifting melodic progression; the lyrics, at first listen, were about a shipwreck. The chorus goes “oh my God, the water’s all around us / oh my God it’s all around”. I came to realize that the song isn’t about a literal shipwreck, but the shipwreck of life. The one we’re all bound for. The lyrics cleverly contrast the wide-eyed optimism of youth, promises of success, happiness and fulfillment after a lifetime of work and toil, with the disquieting notion that it’s all founded on “a system built to fail”. The song is about the illusion of freedom and the cold, harsh realization that it’s all for naught. “Oh my God, life is cold and formless. Oh my God, it’s all around.”
This arrangement, then, is more than merely clever juxtaposition. It’s perfect for the song’s intent. It wasn’t meant to be an excruciatingly dour minor-chord death ballad, but a wistful lament. The melody is uplifting, but the delivery is suitably woeful. The lead vocals navigate across a sea of tuned bowed cymbals and delicate vocal harmonies. The song is anchored by the clank of the acoustic guitar. The harmonica rings out like a funeral trumpet.
This may all seem incredibly dismal and depressing, but the song is crafted so beautifully that the inherent sadness does not overwhelm. You can choose to ignore the words and simply focus on the beautiful sounds, though that would rob it of some of its power. This tune is a masterpiece– stark in its simplicity, but profoundly affecting as a piece of art. And any time it comes up on shuffle, whatever mood I’m in– high or low– I sit up and listen. And I’m always so glad that I did.
Listen to the gorgeous track “Charlie Darwin” by The Low Anthem by clicking the player below:
Bedhead Melodies is a seldom-updated post series in which I expound upon a track from my music library that I happen to stumble onto during those dangerously introspective hours of the night, when your mind and body are so past the point of exhaustion that you have no concept of propriety or … run-on sentences. That was a run-on sentence, right? I think so. I should go to bed.