111. Song No. 1,537: “California One/Youth & Beauty Brigade,” The Decemberists
Castaways and Cutouts, 2002
Years and years and years ago, I tripped my face off to this in one of my best friends’ living room while watching the woodwork melt and whirl into itself, and it was one of the most magical, genuinely entertaining half hours I’ve ever spent staring at a wall. This song is a veritable journey under normal circumstances; aided by acid, it was a feverdream of ebbs and flows, crescendos and quiet musings, the infinite and the intimate, and every single note was some tiny, tangible moment in some new constellation.
A couple of years later, I finally got to see a stretch of California One with one of those people who meant so much to me so briefly but so intensely (platonically speaking, in the purest sense of finding a complementary soul in the least-expected of places), who remains the only person I’ve seen both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with, and I had snippets of this song winding through me from the roads to the shoreline to the sky spreading from the west to the east.
Back in college and a lifetime before any of that, I fervently searched for the spoken sample stitching together both halves of this quietly triumphant epic, finally locating a transcript of the hauntingly whispered snippet from 1990’s “Archangel” (a film as seemingly anachronistic as The Decemberists themselves were in the beginning), brandishing it as an AIM away message, transfixed as I was by its perfect encapsulation of the agonizing beauty that is loving someone meant to be lost to distance: “I’ve heard of ghosts, good ghosts, who wander the battlefields at night guiding soldiers out of danger. You can see their omens everywhere, always warning of stray bullets and lurking enemies. If I were such a ghost, I would stay so close to you, you could feel my breath on your cheek.”
I rarely think of The Decemberists as producing anthemic music, “Sons & Daughters” maybe being the closest exception. And, while their songs do tend to hover around that four- and five-minute sweet spot that I love, they certainly don’t have an abundance of songs that progress like a fully evolved movement resolving itself nowhere near its point of origin.
And maybe that novelty of “California One/Youth & Beauty Brigade” is what first made the last track to one of my favorite band’s debut album so enduringly endearing. But the way it meanders through such exhaustive, scenic terrain by its conclusion, much like its titular highway, merits mention, too. And the way it unfurls with such quiet intensity is a magical kind of breathtaking.
Things certainly don’t need to be epic to be remarkable, though. And they don’t need to be a long slog to be epic. I think those are incidental factors here, and that it’s the lasting impact of “California One/Y&BB” that makes it such an meaningful song to me. Its significance, like the song itself, has shifted as it rolls across time, covering and learning an inner landscape that seems to be as tirelessly in motion as this song’s ability to adapt to whatever conditions ensure its perpetual relevance and infinite capacity to hit a little bit harder under the right conditions, forever the thunderclap of satisfying surprise and inevitability that every good story deserves.