I’ll Tell You of Every Dream – The Walkmen [Guest Post by Milo Cantos from Zombie Public Speaking]

23 06 2009

It hardly needs to be said that I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve just moved back to Chicago less than a week ago, and my time’s been pretty well occupied finishing things up in California and getting them started up over here. I’ll have some more free time now, which might mean I go back to blogging, or it might not – I do hope to post a Pitchfork Music Festival preview mix in the next week or so, though. In the mean time, here’s a guest post on the Walkmen from Heaps front man, Milo Cantos of Zombie Public Speaking.

EDIT: In conjunction with his post below, Milo Cantos has just posted a couple of Heaps covers of the Walkmen on Zombie Public Speaking, along with a pretty on the mark review of what this blog is trying to do. Read it here.

For a band that so frequently mentions dreams, The Walkmen ends up saying very little about what happens in them. Rather than providing vivid, surrealistic images, The Walkmen’s songs are dreamlike only insofar as the lyrics are fragmentary understatements which nonetheless guide us to the sort of unfounded certitude we feel in dreams whereby we know that both hitman and target can both be us. The Walkmen tease us with just enough to think we could complete the puzzle even though many of the pieces aren’t there.

Let’s start with “I’m Thinking of a Dream I Had” off of 2004’s Bows + Arrows (their best, and not just because it had “The Rat” on it):


I’m waiting on a subway line
I’m waiting for a train to arrive
I’m thinking of a dream I had
Maybe you’re right

we’re gonna have a good time tonight
when you’re coming around you’ll be sorry for the plans we made
when you’re coming around, you’ll be sorry for the things you said

Don’t lead me on

And when you’re coming around you’ll be sorry for the things you said
because no one speaks to me that way, I’ll be hanging from the ceiling fan

Like most Walkmen songs, here we have a mixture of diegetic fragments (“I’m waiting for a train to arrive”), vague apostrophes (“maybe you’re right”), and hazy images (“I’ll be hanging from the ceiling fan”). For many years, I thought of the first and second verses as unconnected actions by the speaker–first he thinks backward to a dream (which he does not elaborate) then he thinks forward to the continuation of a previous disagreement with the song’s addressee (the “you” of the chorus). As he imagines renewing the disagreement, he both concedes the weakness of his own position (“maybe you’re right”) and fantasizes about punitive suicide (“no one speaks to me this way / I’ll be hanging from a ceiling fan”). That latter seemed to me a stunning illustration of the limits of overdrawn emotional exhaustion and furious powerlessness. The choice to consider the verses separately seemed supported by the chorus of “maybe you’re right”–which suggests a cognitive move away from memory to evaluation–and the kick-off of the second verse with the placeholder hype of “we’re gonna have a good time tonight.”

When I took on the task of trying to figure out just why The Walkmen weren’t explaining their dreams, it occurred to me that perhaps we should take the “tonight” of “we’re gonna have a good time tonight” literally and assume that the proposed rematch is actually slated for the speaker’s forthcoming dream. By attributing the speaker’s brittle threat of suicide to dream logic, we dampen its cry for help (unless we take the simplistic view of dreams as solely wish-fulfillment, which we do not). It’s also quite possible, given the proximity of the first mention of the “dream I had” with “maybe you’re right” that the addressee’s initial accusation may have occurred in the dream that the speaker considers on the train platform, and thus dreams act as both potential solution to and potential source of psychological distress.

Next, “Brandy Alexander” off of the underrated A Hundred Miles Off:


Finally close the door
you’d left open wide
locked it for me inside
lay me down
count me out

wash it off, it’s all on you
there’s worse ways to see it baby
set a fire and watch it burnin’
come here sit next to me
I’ll tell you about a dream

i’m looking out on the world
I see it through your eyes
burn you down
bury you

i tried to see it plain
there’s worse ways of getting here
you don’t hear me complainin’
i’ll tell you of every dream
i’m holding for you and me

look out now it’s all on you
those colors are fading
outside the wind is howlin’
stop talkin’, listen to me
I’ll tell you of every dream

The sense of “dream” here may actually be the easiest thing to identify about this song; “i’ll tell you of every dream / i’m holding for you and me” may not disclose the contents of the dream(s) to the listener but perhaps they are whimsical plans meant only for those by the fireside to know. The real problem of the song is how we should reconcile that cozy image against three disconcerting elements: (1) the repeated command for silence, (2) the apparent kiss-off of the first verse, and (3) the burning and burying of the second verse. We may chalk the first concern up to a general gruffness of Leithauser’s speakers, always request people get them a lemon or lime. As for the second, I originally assumed that the phrase “finally closed the door / that you left open wide / locked it from the inside” was the speaker characterizing his previous relationship with the addressee, closing off himself a nagging possibility of their return, but why then do they appear in the rest of the song? Perhaps the closing of the door is a simple diegetic statement instead of something deeper–perhaps the addressee left the literal door carelessly open when they arrived at the cabin. We lose what seemed like a poetic statement about the positive side of burning bridges, but we gain better continuity with the rest of the song (where speaker and addressee huddle by the fire in opposition to the “howling” wind outside).

With the third concern, though, we have to decide if, like in the previous song, we want to relate contiguous elements that are not definitely entwined. Is “seeing [the world] through your eyes” one of the speaker’s dreams? If so, “dream” is being used in a different (or at least ‘additional’) way than I initially assumed. Also, if the speaker dreams of being the addressee, should “burn you down / bury you” be understood as coming from the speaker’s perspective or the addressee’s (as inhabited by the dreaming speaker)? Either way, the threat of burning and burial is defused by being stowed in the innocuous illogic of dreams–hopefully, these images are not the same “dreams” the speaker has for the addressee’s future.

Lastly we come to “If Only It Were True,” the closer of last year’s You & Me:


If only it was true
I’d go with you
If only it was true
I’d say, “I do”

And all the things that we do
I could face the day
And all the long night too
If only it was true

My head is all full of dreams
It’s nothing new
But maybe dreaming is all a man can do

So don’t come calling for me
Cause, baby, my dream ain’t through
And when, when I’ve had enough
Oh, then I’ll die in dreams of you

In the second verse, “dreaming” seems implicitly opposed to real-world action in a straightforward way–the speaker has unidentified plans that he cannot realize but cannot bear to abandon. By the chorus, though, the opposition of dreams to life seems to have dissolved–the beloved’s temptation of a conjoined stability is also identified as a dream. The first verse had suggested that this “dream of you” is readily realizable–the agency to say “I do” and accept a life together is in the speaker’s hands–but this tempts us to read the speaker’s forecasted death (“die in dreams of you”) through the conventional wisdom that 19th century novels ends with the protagonist’s marriage or death, both of which put an end to social “life”. Opposed to this dim view of his beloved as a second-place finish beside his dreams, we have the possibility of a second, more poignant reading: in the end, the beloved is represented as dream rather than reality because the speaker recognizes that, by refusing the call when it was offered, he has made it into something he cannot realize, even if he ever becomes ready. Thus, rather than the forward-looking “dreams” of “Brandy Alexander”, here “dreams” may point backward as an alternative to memory that allows the dreamer to do what he could not and never will.