Songs About Radios #2: The Way an Unborn Baby’s Ear Unfolds in Your Belly

8 02 2009

Relax, no song is written
It’s nothing you thought of yourself
It’s just a ghost, came unbidden
To this house

This infection gets stronger every year
This seed in the water of your tear
There’s no escaping it

This seed in the water of your tear
the way an unborn baby’s ear
Unfolds in your belly

This infection gets stronger every year
This direction of a tear rolling down your cheek
And there’s no escaping it

There’s no escaping
The thing that is making
Its home in your radio.

—Okkervil River, “For the Captain” (Download)

Okkervil River - Stars Too Small to UseLook carefully under the title of Songs About Radios and you’ll notice that the site’s tagline is this quote from the mostly forgotten (and, otherwise, probably forgettable) 1999 sophomore EP by now well-established indie folk-rockers, Okkervil River. I’ve had trouble in the past communicating my love for this song, since the first aspect which my friends can’t help but notice is the truly grating quality of the vocals. So I’m going to use this second post in the “Songs About Radios” series to explain why I love this song, not just in spite of the vocals, but in large part because of them, and not just because Will Sheff’s occasional deviations from pitch are fairly forgiving of my own tone-deaf attempts to sing along.

The radio makes an appearance in “For the Captain” at a crucial moment in a chain of metaphors about the way an earworm, one of those maddeningly catchy pop melodies that you can’t get out of your head, is born. “Relax,” Sheff begins, “no song is written” – that is to say, you’re doing it all wrong: you can’t write a song, it can only unfold itself inside you, without your permission, like a ghost that “came unbidden.” It enters, abides as if in a home, unfolds (“the way an unborn baby’s ear unfolds in your belly”), grows stronger like an infection, leaks out like a tear when the fever breaks, and then makes a new home in your radio. The songwriter is not the agent of this growth, but merely the site where it takes place, with or without consent. The repetition of the metaphor of the home suggests a cyclical process: this thing that is making its home in your radio has a way of taking you over and transforming you into a host for the incubation of yet another thing.

The brilliance of this song, in other words, is that it makes all of us, even tone-deaf literary critics like myself, everyone who’s ever loved a piece of music and carried it around in his or her head on an endless loop of an invisible little gramophone, into would-be songwriters. That itching of the earworm inside your brain is the kicking of a new song yearning to be born. That joy and frustration are the awareness of an unrealized creative capacity which Sheff expresses through the literally pedestrian image of an organic beauty imprisoned under the impenetrable barrier of the pathways that make up our everyday life:

All your tiny flowers
They have sat under the sidewalk
They have waited for the pieces
Of the summer sun to show us
All that is your beauty
All and all that is your treasure

Sidewalk FlowersSheff’s delivery is perfect for conveying the emergence of these tiny flowers through the concrete. It strains and cracks as if inadequate to the task at hand, but propelled forward by an inner necessity. As the refrain about “the thing this is making its home in your radio” echos compulsively in the background, Sheff’s increasingly hoarse voice, like the house on fire at the end of the song, is gradually consumed by its attempts to exorcise the ghost.

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