The Sunday Salon: Musical Narratives

I’m a story person—both as a reader and, when I get particularly philosophical, on a cosmic level. While I can appreciate a good introspective novel, I gravitate towards interesting stories that, ideally, are driven by the characters. Shameless plot hooks turn my head, while the only character types that turn my head are ones that hint at a larger story—doomed princesses, snarky thieves, and determinedly perky bruisers. So it’s really no surprise that my love for stories extends to the music I listen to, be they short stories in the form of love songs or song cycles constructed almost as carefully as novels. Today, I wanted to look into a few of the musical narratives that I particularly love—actual musicals need not apply, otherwise I’d sit here and never shut up about Alan Menken.

If you know anything about indie rock, you’ve probably heard about The Decemberists. If you don’t know, this Kate Beaton comic will clear things right up. Nearly all of their songs have a story of some kind, be it as simple as a teenager contemplating his sorry life on his back during a soccer game or the presentation of an infanta to her country. But their album The Hazards of Love is an indie rock opera focusing on the love between the pregnant Margaret, a mortal woman, and William, the shapeshifting adopted son of the Queen of the Forest, who is not pleased that someone is stealing away her child. The Queen enlists the Rake, a man who happily murdered his own children, to dispatch of her. Can true love win out?

It’s a beautifully written album—of particular note are “Won’t Want for Love”, Margaret’s first song, “Annan Water” (a desperate plea to a river spirit to let William pass), and “Isn’t It A Lovely Night?”, as well as the motif of “The Wanting Comes in Waves” which ties the album together. Each character is also played by a different singer—save for William and the Rake, who are both played by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. Margaret is played by Becky Stark and the Queen by Shara Worden. My only complaint is that “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” is awfully subdued for the finale piece—I wish it was a stronger finish to an interesting story.

While the Decemberists write songs and albums about different stories, Janelle Monáe’s songs focus on one story—that of Cindi Mayweather, a futuristic android who breaks the law by falling in love with a human. On the run, Cindi becomes the voice of a new musical movement and a leader for androids everywhere, spreading the word of love and freedom wherever she goes. Monáe herself is a character in the story; being so transgressive, the authorities took her DNA to create Cindi and sent her to the past (our present) as punishment. The story currently consists of three different suites, one EP, and one album; Metropolis: The Chase Suite and The ArchAndroid.

Monáe is almost overwhelmingly talented; The ArchAndroid bounces all over the place, musically, but it works because of her strength as a performer and the story itself. (Monáe has forever endeared herself to me by answering all questions about her sexuality with admitting an attraction to androids.) “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” and “Many Moons” work marvelously as a conjoined set on Metropolis: The Chase Suite and The ArchAndroid is brilliant. It bounces from the seriously funky and upbeat “Tightrope” to the lovely “Sir Greendown” and “Oh, Maker” to the haunting “57821”, a song where Cindi’s human lover, Anthony, finally gets some airtime. It can be exhausting to keep up with, but it’s absolutely worth it.

I drove home on Friday and I’m settling back in—by redoing my room, which is my gift for Christmas. I’ve taken down my curtains, gotten a new comforter (in yellow!), and developed a severe aversion to the use of dark blue in interior design. I swung by the library to pencil in my usual volunteer hours, and ended up picking up Evening’s Empire, Shades of Milk and Honey, Love in a Fallen City, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. After picking through my thrift stores and the library book sale, I’m pretty much done Christmas shopping. I look forward to catching up on my sleep.

Orbit is giving away a set of Rachel Neumeier’s The Griffin Mage trilogy until tomorrow, and posters of the covers for Feed and Deadline until Wednesday. Nicki at Fyrefly’s Book Blog is giving away both Twilight of Avalon and Dark Moon of Avalon until Wednesday. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away five ARCs of The Lost Gate until tomorrow, as well as a science fiction set for you and your local library, The Wheel of Time books for you and your library and a set of Patrick Taylor’s books and audiobooks until December 16th–you must register to receive their newsletter to enter all of these US only giveaways. TJ at Dreams and Speculation is giving away the first season of Space: 1999 in BluRay until December 17th. The BBC America Shop is giving away pairs of gift cards ($500, $250, $100) until December 19th. HarperCollins is giving away a copy of the 60th Anniversary Edition of The Chronicles of Narnia until January 1st. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What are your favorite musical narratives?

11 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Musical Narratives

  1. I love The Decemberists – but had trouble liking this latest album. I didn’t know it was a sonic novel. That totally changes my perception of it.

    thanks for the links to the graphic novels. I downloaded a couple!

  2. I LOVE The Decemberists – and I particularly love the fact that narrative plays such a big role in their songs. On a side note, I’m ridiculously excited that I’m seeing them live next spring 😀

  3. Oh, I didn’t know Janelle Monae had a previous album to ‘The ArchAndroid’! I need to find it. I listened to that CD virtually nonstop for nearly a week–loved it! I had no idea that
    The Hazards of Love’ by The Decembrists was a storyline–I’ve only heard a smattering of songs from it, but I enjoyed it.
    I will sheepishly admit one story-themed CD I’m fond of is Daft Punk’s
    Discovery’. If you have ever seen their anime musical movie ‘Interstella 5555:The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem’, all the songs from ‘Discovery’ are in it. It’s goofy and silly, like some anime is, but I like it. I know you can find the ‘movie’ on YouTube, but I’ve never been able to find it in stores or online.

  4. I know nothing about music (no, really, absolutely nothing) but I remember my husband talking about this group. He likes ’em. He keeps putting them on the ipod and I keep asking who they are. 🙂

  5. I love ‘The Hazards of Love’. I’d never heard of The Decemberists before that album, but a radio show in the UK played a couple of songs from the album, and I had to buy it. I do like the way it tells a story, though the songs are generally strong enough to stand alone without the framework of the concept.

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