206. Song Nos. 3,128 and 3,129: “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right,” The Decemberists
Billy Liar – EP (2004); Tracks and Fields (2004)
(First things first: I love how, in a quirk of alphabetical proximity, this fortunate doubling is just a song away from another oh-so-optimistically titled Decemberists ditty, “Everything is Awful.” [Which, inspired by its apt title for this absolutely wretched timeline we’ve damned ourselves to, is the lead-off song for this year’s summer burn, if you’re so inclined to step into my musical time machine for a summertime sampling of largely mid-aughts fare.])
I know this is a song about a romantic tryst but, whether it’s objectively applicable to goodbyes of all kinds or I’ve just spent this entire pandemic absorbing the reality of inevitable departures you can only try not to take so hard, I can’t help but relate probably unhealthily to the heartache of watching someone fade into the distance as they’re reabsorbed by the part of their life in which you play no part.
In another life, I once drove someone I shouldn’t’ve been with to somewhere I shouldn’t’ve been for another romp we shouldn’t’ve had, accompanied by The Decemberists quietly playing from the car stereo. Potentially prophesizing my eternal inability to pair up with anyone who loves that band like I do, he listened for a few bars, made a face, and asked not the first time why the hell I like this band so much.
At the time, I was too focused on our destination and anticipating the trail of clothes we’d be leaving in our wake to summon a satisfying answer. I’m pretty sure I shrugged and mumbled something about how devastatingly poetic the lyrics are but, man, do I wish I’d had the mental presence to gush about how well this song told our story and all the things every Decemberists album has made me feel in ways few other bands have. Because, if this blog stands as proof of nothing else, it’s that I have a mighty deep fondness for waxing heart-eyed adulatory.
Early Decemberists—roughly Picaresque and especially everything prior—is my favorite incarnation of the band. This falls squarely in that era, though being a non-album tune makes it a bit of a deviation from the anachronistic, melancholic songs seemingly coming from another place and time they were slinging through that period.
This isn’t a tale about long-ago soldiers’ private lives, vengeful ghosts, seafaring calamities and other wretched biographies: It’s about two people squeezing whatever joy they can from an entanglement that seems as carnal as it is ill-fated, a modern-day star-cross’d lovers’ tale that’s more starry-eyed than written in the stars. It tackles a decidedly more mundane topic with the forced perspective of being too close to the source, still wrly narrating the nut of the story and offering a slideshow of relevant images to underscore all the emotions at play, but far more intimately and immediately than their more sweeping epics of long-ago whims and woe.
But like all the Decemberists’ songs with heartache at their core (which is just so, soooo many of them), it still feels like a transformative storytelling arc, just one that uncoils along a personal landscape rather than some battlefield of yore, or some tattered hovel, or some pool hall that’s nothing but dirty underbelly, or some future unmarked grave. And it is still just as hauting and mournful and perfectly framed as anything else they were making then.