Top 50 Songs of 2011 :: Number One : The Decemberists - "Why We Fight"
All six studio albums by The Decemberists' were released during American involvement in Afghanistan. Five of the six LPs made their debut since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The band grew up as the American empire collapsed. But it was this second conflict - one even hawkish foreign policy experts joined rock bands in calling, at the very least, gratuitous - that singer Colin Meloy would swear was not the explicit inspiration for lead single, "Why We Fight", from the band's sublime 2011 release, The King Is Dead. However, even this denial rejected something of the obvious. It was a protest song, just not a simple one. Living in the dark side of an empire is complicated and fraught, as Meloy knew well. After all, this was a generation who unmemorably turned to the equally blighted corners of John Kerry and Green Day's American Idiot in the fall of 2004 to reflect their anger and political will. There would be no "Ohio", no "Fortunate Son" for these kids, no simple call to arms against calls to arms. There would be "Why We Fight", a song that took two sides at once, a song for the year one American war ended while another raged on. A song about war that did the impossible, it could be writ small. A song about politics, corruption and international conflict that could just as easily be about the minutiae of any fractured human relation, any personal struggle. Our wars are complex, Meloy suggested in 2011, and so are we.
The song's macro focus, its dealing in contemporary war imagery, represented the finalizing of a tectonic shift for Meloy and the Decemberists. The band moved away from its early metaphorical, playful politics toward a more overt form of messaging. Always steeped in the political left, the band derived their very name from a group of revolutionaries who attempted liberal reform in Czarist Russia during the winter of 1824. But, the thrust of their first few forays into the subject of war were romantic and strictly lyrical. "The Legionaries Lament" and "The Soldiering Life", from the band's first two records, addressed war as drama, as near irony, firmly over-wrought and intentionally so. Meloy set a tack against this use of war as a historical plaything in the opening lyrics of "Why We Fight". Consider, "Come the war, come the avarice, come the war, come hell" as either crippling invocation or journalistic assessment, but certainly a stricter indictment when set against the earlier maudlin notion of a French Legionarie yearning for Paris. Meloy began playing with these darker images of war on 2005's "Sixteen Miltary Wives". This too was a song about death in Iraq. It was a more tragic and, importantly, a more narrow statement than "Why We Fight". The politics of the Decemberists hadn't changed, but they gained a new richness.
Meloy began to problematize the supposed anti-war sentiment in the cloud-clearing chorus of "Why We Fight". The narrative fires inward as the arrangement takes two grand, galloping steps, launching itself into the air on the title lyric and its corollary, "why ... we lie awake at night". As tacit explanation of "why we fight", Meloy explains, "when we die, we will die with our arms unbound". This robust and unrestrained vision of human conflict posits something richer than the politics of an empire in decline. This was, suddenly, bigger (or smaller) than drone strikes and troops sent abroad and cultural relativism; this was you lying awake at night. This was the listener not sent to their death, but readily, freely, unbound, fighting to live. Our reasons for war were complex, but personal struggles against staggering odds were equally so, Meloy artfully placing both sentiments side-by-side not as an endorsement of international conflict but as a reflection of the importance of more intimate divisions.
The song's final lyrics complete the fusion of the personal and the political. Meloy beckons the listener with the fecund, "Come to me, come to me now, lay your arms around me" before returning to the title lyric and his final dose of fatalism, the motif, "Come hell." For the Decemberists, there is little we can do to change the arc of American foreign policy, save continue to struggle with and against one another. If the song opens with a big narrative, "Why We Fight" closes with an intensely personal image, not specifically of death or of any one conflict, and noticeably not playful. Meloy takes us to the edge, places us in a final embrace and then welcomes the coming disaster, whatever it may be, critically defenestrating any idea that this is only about Iraq, Afghanistan, Wall St., an illness or a broken marriage. "Why We Fight" was about courage first and conflict second.
There is finally the matter of the song's outro, a front porch jam between band member Jenny Conlee and the owner of the studio where the band recorded The King Is Dead. It is an improvised ditty, made up on the spot, about the owner's dog, a hurt paw, and a trip to the vet. Meloy had no way of knowing that it would be Conlee who would miss most of the band's 2011 tour dates fighting breast cancer. Her struggles are immortalized in the final moments of "Why We Fight". This was no example of prescience, rather about the applicability of Meloy's narrative. Without losing its sharp edges, "Why We Fight" paired easily with a diverse set of particulars. This was the year things got complicated and Meloy was in our bedrooms late at night, staring at the ceiling with us. The war was the backdrop, the empire was a setting sun, but the struggles were all our own.