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You belong to the gang
Close-knit family groups and gangs are often key in tales of doomed love.
Songwriter Colin Meloy sets up this story by throwing up obstacles for the characters. Once we hear the word "gang," we're pretty sure that things aren't going to be easy.
Romeo and Juliet has the Montagues and Capulets, West Side Story has the Sharks and Jets, and the "O Valencia!" music video has Meloy battling the Piano Wire Girls of Burnside. All these are stories of a two people who have to hide their passionate love because of the passionate hatred their families or gangs have for each other.
Meloy explained to Pitchfork that using well-known devices and story structures in a song like "O Valencia!" is "what makes it something people can relate to. Because it's programmed into our heads to relate to these stories in certain ways" (source).
But I shout out my love to the stars
There's more to this line than just lover-boy melodrama.
The phrase "star-crossed lovers" comes from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet: "From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life."
The line basically means that not only are the two lovers born into families with major issues, but their fates written in the stars aren't that pleasant either (there's also a nice pun on "take their life"). The speaker in "O Valencia!" is not only showing passion by yelling to the heavens, but also taking a stand against a night sky that predicts his and Valencia's doom.
So await for the stone on your window, your window
Await by the car, and we'll go, we'll go
And an oath of love was your dying cry
These are examples of the Decemberists' love of old-school word choice.
How often do you say to your friends, "Hey, await for me at Burger King"? Yeah, pretty much never.
However, this type of language is pretty standard for a songwriter who, on the lengthily-titled song "The Island: Come and See; The Landlord's Daughter; You'll Not Feel the Drowning"—also from The Crane Wife—rhymes the name of an ancient witch, Sycorax, with the ten-dollar word "parallax."
This sort of unexpected word choice is a major part of why some people love the Decemberists—and why others just don't get all the fuss. Here's what Meloy has to say about it:
I've also always had a love of language... When you're writing songs the English language is your...paint, I guess... To limit yourself in the vocabulary or syntax in the songs would be somehow limiting your palette too much, and it's exciting to me to use more pretty words that have a lot of nice alliterative and consonant qualities to them. (Source)
But O, Valencia!
With your blood still warm on the ground
But uh, she hasn't died yet.
The first time we hear this line, Valencia hasn't even been shot. Why would Meloy reveal this important plot point before it ever happens? We'll make a few guesses. Can you think of any other possible reasons?
(1) Because Valencia's death is foreshadowed, the listener is able to relate this song even better to other classic tragedies.
(2) It supports the idea that her sad demise is an unavoidable fate written in the stars.
(3) It makes you curious. Even though you know Valencia is going to die, you don't know how or when. You'll have to keep listening to find out.
And you ran like a fool to my side
Well the shot, it hit hard
And your frame went limp in my arms
Who's the real fool here?
We're not sure what Valencia thought would happen when she ran to her lover. Maybe she thought she could talk her brother out of hurting him. Maybe she knew the shot would come and she meant to sacrifice herself. Maybe it was just an instinctual act that ended up getting her killed.
But Valencia's actions aren't the only ones that are hard to figure out. Why is the speaker of the song so determined to start such a dangerous relationship? Why does Valencia's family insist on hating the speaker to the point of wanting him dead?
While we're at it, let's ask a few questions about the story, too: is it a tale of pure young love that's destroyed by the pointless violence and grudges of others, or is it about two naïve kids unwilling to face reality? Your guess is as good as ours.
I'll burn this whole city down
For all its dependence on a classical structure, "O Valencia!" isn't completely old news.
In the star-crossed lover tales mentioned before, nobody really promises revenge. In Romeo and Juliet, the deaths of the main characters seem to mend the broken relationship between their two families. In West Side Story, the boyfriend, Tony, is killed, while the girl, Maria, lives. Though she thinks about killing the people who murdered Tony, she can't bring herself to do it.
How Meloy ends his tale, then, is pretty unique. Can you think of any stories that end with a main character swearing revenge—that you never get to see? By leaving his tale open-ended, Meloy leaves the listener to wonder about the outcome. It's a simple twist that helps give a little bit of new life to a story arc that's centuries old.