A few days ago I posted a brief review of the new record from Better Oblivion Community Center in which I wrote a little bit about the song “Dylan Thomas” from their record. In the 50 something hours since then I’ve listened to the song about 100 times, literally, which is a lot. So I thought I might have something more to say about it.

For the uninitiated (which is probably everyone reading this–after I posted my review a friend texted me a funny article from The Onion entitled “Study: No Two People Have Listened To Same Band Since 2003”), Better Oblivion Community Center is Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. “Dylan Thomas” is the single, or at least the song they just played on Jimmy Kimmel. You still won’t know them.

The reason I want to write a little more about the song is it has a killer structure. The structure is based around a neat rhyme scheme with fabulous use of “near rhymes” and also around a see-saw in the verses between fairly pointed political commentary and apolitical hedonism. As with all interpretation, I can’t be sure that what I hear was intended, but what the hell–communication is what the listener does after all.

Now, a lot of songs, most, rhyme. That’s obvious. But not too many songs really hold up on the page as well, as poetry. I think “Dylan Thomas” does and I’d like to explore why.

Verse I:

It was quite early one morning
Hit me without warning
I went to hear the general speak
I was standing for the anthem
Banners all around him
Confetti made it hard to see

So the first verse clearly alludes to our political moment–it appears politically engaged to some extent. The reference to “the general” is redolent of South American politics (I am reminded of the fabulous Drugstore song “El President”). The rhyme scheme is tricky–it’s AABCC(D), where (d) “see” almost rhymes with “speak” in the delivery although the words don’t actually rhyme, instead being only vaguely alliterative.

Verse II:

Put my footsteps on the pavement
Starved for entertainment
Four seasons of revolving doors
So sick of being honest
I’ll die like Dylan Thomas
A seizure on the bathroom floor

Verse II sees a clear shift from the political to the personal, the hedonistic, the depraved. While Thomas is famous for his “rage against the dying of the light,” Better Oblivion taps the seedier side of Thomas’ legacy–the singers (most of the songs on the album including “Dylan Thomas” are duets) in verse II are seeking pleasure and there is no hint of the macro picture here. So, verse I=macro, verse II=micro.

The rhyme scheme shifts to AABCCB, with a definite rhyme between “doors” and “floor.” Entertainment” and “pavement” I would consider near-rhymes, and the slightly off-kilter near-rhymes are for me what really make this song stand out as a piece of writing.

Chorus:

I’m getting greedy with this private hell
I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well

Hard to say exactly what “this private hell” refers to, however we get a sense of doubling down on the dissolute–in for a penny in for a pound as they say.

Verse III:

These cats are scared and feral
The flag pins on their lapels
The truth is anybody’s guess
These talking heads are saying
“The king is only playing
a game of four dimensional chess”

Verse III is clearly political again, setting up a 1 for 1 see-saw (so far). “Cats” here cuts both ways–on the one hand “people” with flag pins in the era of truthiness, on the other, well real cats are feral. It’s a very clever, subtle move. Is the general from verse I the king from verse III? Probably. We live in an era where world leaders are not in the business of leading, but rather of playing elaborate, endless games.

The rhyme scheme here is a AABCCB where the second C and the second B are part of a single quote. Very nicely done.

Verse IV:

There’s flowers in the rubble
The weeds are gonna tumble
I’m lucid but I still can’t think
I’m strapped into a corset
Climbed into your corvette
I’m thirsty for another drink

This is where the song really comes into its own as a mini-masterpiece. On its own, this verse is nakedly apolitical and local–I am reminded of one of my favorite lines of all time, which I’ve written about before, from the final Replacements album. The song is “Someone Take the Wheel” and the line goes

They’re fighting again in some fucking land
Ah, throw in another tape man

In 1990, Paul Westerberg didn’t give a shit about the Iraq War and wanted nothing more than to listen to music on the road. That’s an understandable point of view on the level of the human individual. What I love about what Oberst and Bridgers do with this song is how they alternate verses between the macro and the micro, the engaged and the depraved. The same conceit is used on the first song of the record, “Didn’t Know What I Was In For”:

I didn’t know what I was in for
When they took my belt and strings
They told me I’d gone crazy
My arms are strapped in a straight jacket
So I couldn’t save those TV refugees.

I get this sentiment. Seriously. If we sort of zoom out at our world situation these days, we could easily say that every person with even a patina of ethical conscience ought to be on the front lines in one way or another. And then I look at myself and…well, I chose Medicine Sans Frontiers as the charity that gets some small percentage of my Amazon purchases. Will the future see me as a head in the sand hedonist? Probably, and probably with justification.

The rhyme scheme in verse IV is again a clear AABCCB with near-rhymes (probably the first time in history “corset” has been rhymed with “corvette”), in fact the same scheme as limericks. I f***ing love AABCCB. God bless it. Also, the line “I’m lucid but I still can’t think” pretty much summarizes my entire life to date.

Verse V:

If advertised, we’ll try it
And buy some peace and quiet
And shut up at the silent retreat
They say you’ve gotta fake it
At least until you make it
That ghost is just a kid in a sheet

AABCCB again, the scheme which carries the song with the striking exception on verse I. Verse V alludes to the theme of the record–Better Oblivion Community Center is some kind of partially defined wellness retreat–and kind of splits the difference between the political and the personal, the macro and the micro. It also serves as a commentary on the commercialization of “wellness” (which I have no major issue with), and is a cheeky meta-comment on the cover of Bridgers 2017 debut:

Is this a shot at some critics? A self-aware reference to a DIY cover? I don’t know, and I love the line.

Following the logic of this piece, we have a kind of scheme of the verses as well. Let’s call is ABABC where A=political, B=apolitical, and C splits the difference.

Verse VI/ Chorus:

I’m getting used to these dizzy spells
I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel
I’m getting greedy with this private hell
I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well

It’s a simple AABB with the outro calling back the chorus from mid-song. The see-saw between the personal the political sort of resolves itself in the killer couplet. “I’m getting used to these dizzy spells” suggests acclimatization to the altitude–metabolization of the fear. “I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel” is an amazingly effective counterpoint line–we are living at the knife point of maniacs. Ah well, let’s hit the bar. I’m thirsty for another drink.

Seriously, check out “Dylan Thomas” and the whole record. I know no one listens to anything I listen to, but for once I am serious…lol.

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