Over the course of the 52 Songs essay project I will write about three songs by The Decemberists, a band based in lovely Portland, Oregon. “California One / The Youth & Beauty Brigade” is the final track on The Decemberists’ first full length album Castaways & Cutouts.
As a band, The Decemberists have the ability to write both long, multi-themed pieces (a recent example being the three part song “Crane Wife”) as well as catchy, shorter pop numbers like “Sixteen Military Wives” off the Picaresque album. “California One...” is actually three songs in one. It begins with a song about driving the sublime California coastal highway and drinking sweet California wine. This transitions into a one verse song about a woman named Annabelle. The third movement of the song imagines a gathering of misfits and outcasts who come together to form the Youth and Beauty Brigade.
While The Decemberists are no strangers to nine minute plus songs, “California One...” is an unusual song for them. The Decemberists tend not to write songs that are personal in nature. They prefer songs based on historical figures or literary references, songs that imaginatively place them into unusual figures. This is somewhat fitting for a band that would name themselves after a failed military uprising in early 19th Century Russia. On just the ten song album Castaways & Cutouts, the Decemberists sing from the point of view of the ghost of Leslie Ann Levine (a victim of infanticide), a French legionnaire whose camel is in disrepair, and a mystery figure named Odalisque.
So, what makes "California One..." different is that you can completely imagine the band’s front man, Colin Meloy, taking a romantic road trip through Northern California, marveling in natural beauty and stopping to enjoy wine from the vineyards. The song also features crafty wording where the first verse begins, “Take a long drive with me on California One,” and the second verse begins, “Take a long dram with me of California Wine.”
The realism of the first half of the song raises an interesting question about the second half of the song in which Colin Meloy issues a plaintive call to come and join the Youth and Beauty Brigade. “We’re calling all bed wetters and ambulance chasers / poor picker-pockets / bring ‘em in. / We’re lining up the light loafer’d / and the bored bench warmers / castaways and cutouts, fill it up / Come and join the Youth & Beauty Brigade.” Obviously, this is fantasy. Yet, Colin Meloy follows up this call with the funny claim that he has “paid his debt to society by paying [his] overdue fines at the Multnomah County Library.” (Portland, Oregon is located in Multnomah County.) And, it is probably too much to analyze this song so closely, but this posturing as the heroic leader of a group of misfits and underdogs is interesting. Maybe the modern Decemberist revolt will not be led by Russian soldiers disgruntled with the Czar but by bored bench warmers, castaways, and cutouts.
You can listen to Colin Meloy perform a solo version of “California One…” here.