The Decemberists: The Engine Driver

The Decemberists are certainly one of the most clever and talented bands of our time. Each song is like reading a novel: clever wordplay, in depth storylines, and a vocabulary that many would need a dictionary to understand. Finding meaning in their songs is much more of finding an emotional connection rather than some hidden nugget of truth. Just as you would read a book and understand some moral that was never explicitly stated, listening to a Decemberists song is in the exact same vein.

I’ve dedicated this entry to the song “The Engine Driver,” not necessarily because it’s the best song in The Decemberists’ catalog, but because it is the song that got me originally interested in the band in the first place. The emotion in the song is prevalent and clear, and most listeners will certainly relate. If this blog is worth anything, it’s at least to expose you to great music and that is what is about to happen.

Watch your step kids, I’m about to drop some knowledge.

The song structure is important in this one. Three verses, a pre-chorus, and a chorus. Each verse is dedicated to a different character in the song. An engine driver, a county lineman and a money lender. The goal of this analysis is to see how these characters are connected.

I’m an engine driver

On a long run, on a long run

Would I were beside her

She’s a long one, such a long one

In the first verse we’re introduced to the theme of loneliness and love. An engine driver, far away from home, and it seems like he’ll be away for a while.  He’s doing his duty as he thinks of his love at home. If only he were beside her, what would he do. “She’s a long one, such a long one,” is a bit confusing. It seems like he would be talking about the girl he had just mentioned, but a “long one” of a lady doesn’t seem to make sense to me (maybe it’s an old timey turn of phrase). I lean more towards the idea that the engine driver is coming out of his reverie of his lady and referring to his trip as a long one. The lady he is with now is his train/task.

And then the pre-chours:

And if you don’t love me let me go

This pre-chorus unites the entire song, but let’s not jump ahead of ourselves quite yet.

I’m a county lineman
On the high line, on the high line
So will be my grandson
There are powerlines in our bloodlines

A county lineman is our next character. Once again, a more historic occupation. A county lineman was responsible for hanging and repairing telegraph or telephone lines. Much like the first verse we have a character who is committed to duty. He has a responsibility and will do it without exception. He takes such pride in his occupation, in fact, that even his progeny will follow after. The verse is stoic in a way; very little emotion is involved.

And the repeat:

And if you don’t love me, let me go

The last verse is this:

I’m a money lender
I have fortunes upon fortunes
Take my hand for tender
I am tortured, ever tortured

A money lender is, again, keeping consistent with this old-timey profession thing we have going on here. What I really like here is this word play. The like “take my hand for tender” can be interpreted two different ways. Tender of course being a form of money, “legal tender,” but this can also be interpreted in the way of tender meaning soft and affectionate. This seems the most likely interpretation because it is consistent with the rest of the song and the next line of the verse. “I am tortured, ever tortured,” shows that he is tortured by the thought of never being in love; loneliness envelopes him.

Up to this point I’ve skipped the chorus, but now is where I tie everything in together.

And I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I’ve written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
I am a writer, I am all that you have hoped on

And I’ve written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones
My bones
My bones

This chorus seems to tie these three verses by making the song personal. I think the narrator is now speaking (the singer/songwriter). He’s written these stories or fictions in the verses of love and loneliness, and he writes these because he’s trying to mend his own heartache. “And if you don’t love me let me go,” shows his deep want to have his love return, but if she won’t all he wants is to forget her. He simply wants to stop the hurt of loneliness.

This song is really amazing. It displays perfectly how a song can be both a story and an introspective commentary. The Decemberists’ music is truly unique and should be respected at the very least.


1 Comment

  1. It’s just a beautiful song, a pretty talented band of course – and you did a wonderful interpretation. Thank you for this!

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