Work tends to cause songs to mysteriously pop into my head, often making me absentmindedly whistle or hum something I haven’t heard in years and may never have even liked in the first place. Yesterday, it was “Backwater,” which I didn’t mind so much, but last week it was “Say You’ll Be There.” Today, it’s “The Rake’s Song” from the newest by The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love. In fact, “The Rake’s Song” was the album’s first publicly released track. And with good reason, too: It’s catchy as hell. I, however, could benefit from a different song to be stuck with, because this one is the most infanticide-centered pop tune since The Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song.”
Like a good short story, “The Rake’s Song” lends itself to interpretation. For example: Is the narrator being truthful when he says that he’s always been a rake? He claims to be “wedded” and “whetted” in that order, as if marriage somehow forced him into better behavior. According to him, it’s the arrival of the kids that made him revert to more wicked ways — specifically that of his fourth child, ugly Myfanwy, whose problematic birth results in both her death and that of her mother. This pushes the narrator over the edge, or so he says, and he takes to killing off the remaining children, one by one, eventually leading him to become the villain of the story told over the course of Hazards of Love.
I’m not so sure we’re meant to take his words as true. After all, he is villain. Such characters lie. I feel it’s possible that the narrator may have actually been a fairly normal person prior to his wife’s death. His self-proclaimed history of lifelong, cold-blooded caddery could simply be his delusional way of rationalizing the fact that he murdered his kids, which itself was his rather extreme response to his wife’s death.
The names given to the ill-fated offspring also bother me to the point that I would like to ask Colin Meloy if some motives other than the number of syllables factored into the decision. In order, there’s Isaiah (represented in some lyrics as Eziah) with his “crinkled little fingers,” then “Charlotte and that wretched girl Dawn,” and finally Myfanwy. Who knows what time period Meloy envisioned the events of Hazards of Love taking place, but Dawn strikes me as atypically modern. And then there’s Myfanwy, which I keep mishearing as Nathalie, and which grates upon American ears even more than most Welsh names. Perhaps it’s intentional. The name — which seems to mean “my woman” — may also be an homage to the Welsk folk song “Myfanwy,” which features a man addressing his love, the titular woman, and asking why her feelings for him have soured. A precedent for such a shout out exists, at least, by virtue of the fact that the whole of Hazards of Love was inspired by a 1966 album by British folk singer Anne Briggs — or so says Pitchfork, anyway. A curiosity: Whereas Briggs’s Hazards of Love lacked a track by that name. The Deceberists’s Hazards of Love has no less than four.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall continue to quietly hum my way through the murder of children. For the record, I think the track “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)” is the best of the lot, and it contains no reference to the child-killing, so don’t get the wrong idea about me.