This post is about the song “Dylan Thomas” from the first Better Oblivion Community Center record. For the uninitiated (which is probably everyone reading this–recently 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, if singles still existed. You still won’t know them.
I want to write about the song because it has a killer structure and is awesome. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 from the final Replacements album. The song is “Someone Take the Wheel” and the line goes: “they’re fighting again in some fuckin’ 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 I do. If we zoom out a bit on 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 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.
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” 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/ Outro:
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 still.