The Annotated Decemberists No. 1: ‘Oceanside’

This new project was partially inspired by the fun I had creating a glossary for all the archaic verbiage from The Decemberists’ latest album and the encouraging response I got from random Internet strangers. I also was reading the fascinating book “A Hard Day’s Write” by Steve Turner, an impeccably researched account of each and every song by the Fab Four, and I thought that someone ought to do that for my other favorite bands. Well, that someone might as well be me. Let’s see how far I can get through The Decemberists’ catalog before this consumes my entire life and I start forgetting to eat and sleep.

We start with the first track from the band’s first release.

From 5 Songs (2003)

Sweet Annabelle[1],
As seen reclining on an ocean swell
As the waves do lather up to lay her down
’til she’s fast[2] and sleeping[3].
Oh well, I guess I’m something of a ne’er-do-well[4],
who fell asleep at the pealing of the steeple bell.
I’m on track and keeping.

But oh, if I could only get you oceanside,
to lay your muscles wide[5],
it’d be heavenly.
Oh, if I could only coax you overboard[6],
to leave these lulling[7] shores,
to get you oceanside.
Oceanside. Oceanside[8]. Oh.

At rising tide, you’re looking fresher than a July bride[9].
We’re picking up what our mothers always stigmatized.
The field is right for reaping[10].
Oh well, I guess I’m something of a ne’er do well,
even though that’s something I could never do well.
I’m on track and keeping.

But oh, if I could only get you oceanside,
to lay your muscles wide,
it’d be heavenly.
Oh, if I could only coax you overboard,
to leave these lulling shores,
to get you oceanside.
Oceanside. Oceanside. Oh.

Exegesis Manifest    (↑ returns to text)

  1. Ooh, a loaded word right off the bat. Colin Meloy has used the name “Annabelle” in two other songs: “California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade” (“Annabelle lies, sleeps with quiet eyes / on this sea-drift sun”) and “Annabelle Leigh” by his previous band, Tarkio.

    That spelling of “Leigh” is reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita, in which pedophiliac narrator Humbert Humbert blames his obsession with “nymphets” on his childhood love for a girl named Annabel Leigh.

    Nabokov himself was referencing Edgar Allen Poe’s final poem, “Annabel Lee,” which was published after Poe’s death in 1849 (and may have been inspired by the death of his wife two years prior). The poem’s narrator describes a maiden from a “kingdom by the sea” and claims their love was so intense that angels in heaven envied it and caused her death.

    Using language from the poem, Humbert describes his encounter with Annabel Leigh at the beach one summer and how his sexual advances were foiled by her parents. She soon died, leaving their love unconsummated.

  2. It’s easy to forget just how many definitions a deceptively simple word like “fast” can have. When paired with “asleep,” it means “thoroughly or soundly,” but it can also mean “not easily moved or fixed” or even “promiscuous sexually.”
  3. Given the literary associations that the name Annabel has with untimely death, it’s worth pondering whether the character in this song is just napping or whether the waves are laying her down for a more permanent sleep, don’t you think?
  4. n. a person who never does anything worthwhile; one who cannot make a living, get things done, etc.”
  5. Given the reference to Lolita, I think we can assume this is intended to be just as sexual as it seems.
  6. The narrator seems to be trying to get this girl to “take the plunge,” figuratively and literally.
  7. To lull is “to calm or soothe by gentle sound or motion,” but it can also imply deception, as in “to lull into a false sense of security.”
  8. I don’t want to dwell too much on the song’s title because it might just be a pretty word. (Meloy, in introducing the song at concerts, often simply says, “This is a song about the ocean,” and that might be all there is to it.) But there’s something odd about trying to get someone to come “oceanside” when they’re already at the beach. In fact, Annabelle is introduced as reclining on a wave, maybe lying on some sort of raft. Is he suggesting they go back to shore to make love? Or is he trying to get her in the water … perhaps under the water? In this hazy, gender-reversed Siren song, they’re almost one and the same.
  9. The old, superstitious poem declares, “A July bride will be handsome, but a trifle quick-tempered.”
  10. When it comes to farming metaphors, “sowing” is the one normally associated with sex. “Reaping” might be another nebulous reference to death (as in the Grim Reaper), but the narrator might also be implying that that the prize of Annabelle’s virginity is ripe for the taking. Again, the two seem to be intertwined in this song.

3 Replies to “The Annotated Decemberists No. 1: ‘Oceanside’”

  1. HOL 4 sees the conclusion of our watery lovers. It seems this is a theme that sews itself throughout the Decemberists catalogue. I have long mulled just trying to note the maritime references alone. Love your work here! Please proceed.

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