“The bosun calls upon the quay.” Yes, those are actual lyrics from the song “The Gymnast High Above the Ground” by The Decemberists. In an age when it is frequent for people to complain that they can’t understand the lyrics to songs because the words are garbled or slurred or poorly enunciated, it is rare to find a band whose lyrics are a practically a vocabulary quiz. (In case you are wondering, a “bosun” is a petty officer on a merchant ship and a “quay” is a landing place for a boat. “The Gymnast…” also includes the word “tarlatan” which is a type of thin fabric.)
This week is the third song by The Decemberists about which I’ve written. Earlier, I wrote about their songs “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” and “The Sporting Life.” Last week I wrote about the third song of the year by Fountains of Wayne and next week I will write about the third song I’ve selected by the band Death Cab for Cutie.
“The Gymnast High Above the Ground” is probably my favorite song by The Decemberists. The song consists of two short and minimalist verses and two long and exquisite choruses. The verses are subdued, sung over a quietly strummed guitar, a steadily tapped drum, and some subtle flourishes on the keyboard.
The contrast is in the chorus, where the music swells, soars, and floats… just like a gymnast high above the ground. I struggle to find the words for just how beautiful the chorus is. It has a dreamlike quality. Or maybe I should say the quality is chimerical. With the assistance of strings, horns, and percussion the song swells. Or maybe I should say that it tumefies.
Take a listen for yourself. Unfortunately, the only recording of the song on youtube is not too great, although it is recorded at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon which is a great place to see a show.