The Decemberists, “O Valencia!”

Written by October 8th, 2012 at 7:00 am

It’s a tale as old as time: Two people ignore their antagonistic backgrounds and fall in love, only to have the overarching conflict drag them down, usually in a tragic manner. Anyone who’s ever read a little Shakespeare will recognize the story, and it’s been played out on the pages of novels, theatre stages, and movie screens for hundreds of years.

But how can you fit all of that into a bite-sized nugget of a rock song? It makes sense that the problem was solved by Indie Rock’s most literate of songwriters, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. On “O Valencia!,” from 2006’s The Crane Wife, Meloy and his merry band manage to tell the tale in miniature even as the emotional punch the song packs is huge.

In an interview with Pitchfork around the time of The Crane Wife’s release, Meloy talked about what draws him to such tales: “It’s an archetypal storyline, so it means a lot; it carries a lot of baggage. You can draw a line through it to a hundred other stories. I’ve always been attracted to that sort of tragedy.”

Meloy manages to modernize the tale from its Elizabethan trappings, with guns and cars factoring in the lyrics. The music, written by the entire band, also stays in the here-and-now thanks to a taut, melodic arrangement; no lutes on hand here. Yet the way these lovers make contact is definitely old school: He throws stones at her window as a signal for their rendezvous.

The romantic gestures here are big and broad. “I’m here with my hands on my heart,” the guy says, then later promises, “But I’ll shout out my love to the stars.” She, meanwhile, ignores her familial bonds and chooses love over all else. That costs her in the end.

When shots ring out, she runs “like a fool” to her lover’s side, only to be felled in the crossfire. “An oath of love was your dying cry,” sings Melloy, proving that not even death will separate this pair. The story isn’t over though, as there is still revenge to be had. The narrator’s final vow: “And I swear to the stars/I’ll burn this whole city down.”

It turns out there’s a reason that people keep finding inspiration in this oft-told tale. Colin Meloy and The Decemberists, like Shakespeare and so many others through time, realize that sometimes it takes a fantastical story such as the one told in “O Valencia!” to accurately portray the epic contents of a heart in love.

“O Valenica!”

You belong to the gang
And you say you can’t break away
But I’m here with my hands on my heart

Our families can’t agree
I’m your brother’s sworn enemy
But I’ll shout out my love to the stars

So wait for the stone on your window, your window
Wait by the car and we’ll go, we’ll go

When first we laid eyes
I swore to no compromise
‘Til I felt my caress on your skin

Well, how soon we were betrayed
Your sister gave us away
And your father came all unhinged

So wait for the stone on your window, your window
Wait by the car and we’ll go, we’ll go

But Oh Valencia
With your blood still warm on the ground
Valencia
And I swear to the stars
I’ll burn this whole city down

All I heard was a shout
Of your brother calling me out
And you ran like a fool to my side

Well the shot, it hit hard
And your frame went limp in my arms
And an oath of love was your dying cry

So wait for the stone on your window, your window
Wait by the car and we’ll, go we’ll go

But Oh Valencia
With your blood still warm on the ground
Valencia
And I’ll burn this whole city down
Valencia
With your blood getting cold on the ground
Valencia
And I swear to the stars
I’ll burn this whole city down

- Written by Colin Meloy and The Decemberists

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