The Annotated Decemberists No. 12: “Cocoon”

The Annotated DecemberistsPerhaps no band’s lyrics better lend themselves to pseudo-academic analysis than those of The Decemberists. The Annotated Decemberists is an attempt to puzzle through the Portland, Oregon, group’s entire catalog song by song—examining all the obscure vocabulary, historical references and poetic subtext—or go crazy trying.

This one is like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, but once you fall back asleep you’re instantly back in the moment. If asked, I couldn’t hum you more than one line of this song, but in the context of the album, it’s instantly familiar and comforting. Slow and somber, the lyrics are impressionistic, aside from a clear, early reference to the victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius—a tragedy that may or may not keep coming up throughout the song and may or may not serve as a stand-in for the tragedy of 9/11. Who knows? The meaning of a dream is rarely overt. More likely, you’re left with just the feelings it inspired—and everyone you describe it to is going to have a different interpretation.

“Cocoon”
from Castaways and Cutouts, 2002

Fig. 1: Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

Fig. 1: Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii. Courtesy of wikimedia.org

This cocoon, caught in Vesuvius’[1] shadow
Only the ashes remain
And I waited there for you
Why couldn’t you?

Here we lie waiting for something to startle
To shake us from gravity’s pull[2]
And so the sleeping hours are through
What can we do?[3]

The sorry conclusion[4], the low dirty war[5],
It happened before you came to
But this is solution, and this is amends
The joke always tends to come true
But there on your windowsill over the unmoving platoon[6]
Written in paperback, the view[7] to the quarterback’s room[8]
Under waning moon[9]

This quiet serves only to hide you
Provide you
What I knew
What I knew: it’d come back to you

Fig. 2: 17th century palmistry chart. Courtesy of ridiculouslyinteresting.com.

Fig. 2: 17th century palmistry chart. Courtesy of ridiculouslyinteresting.com.

Take this palm, follow the lines here are written[10]
Tracing the veins and the shapes[11]
And feel your fingers falling slack and all folding back

The tainted election[12], the hole in the sky[13]
Command what is tried, what is true
But without solution, with feet on the ground
It won’t make a sound ’til you’re through
So loosen your shoulder blades[14]
This is your hour to make due[15]
Because there on the timberline[16]
Deep cold November shines through
Soft and absolute

This quiet serves only to hide you
Provide you
What I knew
What I knew: it’d come back to you

Exegesis Manifest    (↑ returns to text)
  1. The volcano on the western coast of Italy that famously destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. In Pompeii, residents died after inhaling hot, toxic gasses, then were covered in up to 20 feet of ash and pumice, which hardening around the bodies. Beginning in 1863, excavators created casts of the victims by injecting plaster into these volcanic cocoons. (The same process is used for remains discovered at the site today, although a transparent fiberglass resin has replaced the plaster.)
  2. “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” is a song from the 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction, something that avowed early-R.E.M. fan Colin Meloy would surely know, although not necessarily purposefully reference here. Also, after reading up on the concept of inertia, I came to the conclusion that gravity makes it hard to do stuff, a metaphor Meloy is employing to describe a state of stasis or stagnation—all of which is probably obvious to the listener and should have been obvious to me without spending an hour researching Newtonian physics. Oh well.
  3. Similar to the repeated refrain of “What do we do?” from the albums’s previous song, “Odalisque.”
  4. In the lyrics at decemberists.com, “the sorry conclusion” and “the tainted election” are switched.
  5. This song was released in May 2002, which would have been too early into the run-up to the Iraq War for this line to be a direct comment on that particular U.S. policy turd. It could be a reference to the War in Afghanistan, however.
  6. pla·toon´, n. [Fr. peloton, a ball, a group, a platoon, from pelote, a ball.] 1. a military unit composed of two or more squads or sections, normally under the command of a lieutenant: it is a subdivision of a company, troop, etc. 2. a group or unit like this.

    It is this humble blogger’s opinion that this line is a return to the the Pompeii imagery, and “unmoving platoon” refers to the scores of bodies frozen in time…but I could be wrong.

  7. Decemberists.com has this as “key to the quarterback’s room,” which is a much more beguiling phrase, I think.
  8. Meloy mentioned the word “quarterback” at least once outside the context of this song, when he was invited to be the speaker at the graduation ceremony for Helena High School, his alma mater. He closed his remarks by saying the following:

    So: all of you. It doesn’t matter if you barely made it to this spot, that you, like me, eeked your way to graduation. If you didn’t go to a single Bengal game. If you’re champing at the bit to get all this over with and move on to the next chapter. Valedictorian, quarterback, lead of the spring play, second chair trumpet player – whatever. You are all conjoined in this Montanan exceptionalism.

    The world beyond these mountains is a lesser world; it rests on you to make it better.

  9. wane v. 1. to decrease in size, extent, or degree : dwindle: as a) to diminish in phase or intensity —used chiefly of the moon, other satellites, and inferior planets, b) to become less brilliant or powerful : dim, c) to flow out : ebb.”
  10. The practice of interpreting the creases on a person’s hand to divine his future is believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago. Here the idea is conflated with the lines in a book.
  11. Decemberists.com has this line as “And script out the rest of your life.” Some online lyrics sites have “bends” in place of “veins,” but they’re clearly wrong.
  12. The song was recorded roughly one year after the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election.
  13. My first association with this line is the ozone layer. Others—at least a few people over at Song Meanings—hear it and think of the World Trade Center and the empty space the Twin Towers’ absence left in the Manhattan skyline. The song was recorded just a few months after 9/11, and there is a certain sensibility in the idea that the song is connecting the victims of that tragedy to those of Pompeii.
  14. i.e. relax
  15. “Make do” generally has more support as the proper spelling for this idiom, which means to get by with whatever is available, but “make due” has gained some acceptance.
  16. timberline n. 1 the upper limit of arboreal growth in mountains or high latitudes.” At more than 4,200 feet, Mount Vesuvius does have a tree line, although there’s no indication that that’s what Meloy is referring to here (nor what the significance of November in the next line might be).
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2 Responses to The Annotated Decemberists No. 12: “Cocoon”

  1. James says:

    I just wanted to say I really appreciate this series of blogposts.

    Noticed you’d stopped doing them for a while and semi-recently picked it back up, and just thought I’d say I love these and hope you decide to continue!

    • Bill says:

      Thank you, James. In general, circumstances have made it a bit harder for me to update the blog lately. And frankly, I found “Cocoon” here just a little daunting, because it’s so…enigmatic. But I do plan to keep doing this series, even if The Decemberists are adding more songs to their catalog at a faster rate than I can write about them.

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