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Finding the Story in Palo Santo

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This is a tricky record. The first time I heard it, it blew me away, both lyrically and musically–it’s spare and pretty and haunting, but those are wussy adjectives which don’t fit this, since it’s equally towering and ominous and threatening. The lyrics feature a similar dichotomy and the more I listen to this album, the more convinced I become that there is a story here–some kind of linking narrative that ties these eleven songs together. When most people think of “concept albums” they think of something like The Wall or Tommy, but to make a comparison, those are Michael Bay movies, where this is more like a David Lynch film. The pieces to this are scattered like breadcrumbs in the misty forest the cover depicts, and because my brain loves obscure, open-ended puzzles, these are some musings trying to follow that trail.

First, for reference, the lyrics to the album can be found here. Note that there are two versions of the album (the 2006 original issue and the 2007 reissue for which a few songs were rerecorded), and a few slight lyrical differences between them, but the basic ideas remain the same.

But before we get to the songs themselves, there’s the title. My Spanish is kind of rusty, but “palo santo” would mean something to the effect of “holy stick,” if I’m not mistaken. That immediately conjures up a phallic image, which fits with a lot of the other imagery on the record, but the “holy” adjective gives it a certain connotation–it makes it sound like an old term, gives it a sense of… not theatricality, exactly, but presence. So the sense I get is that sexuality is going to be a big part of this story, but not exactly the focal point–more like the implications of that sexuality. Hm.

1. La Dame et la Licorne
French for “The Lady and the Unicorn,” which refers to a series of six tapestries about sensual pleasure and desire. The first lines introduce theme of wind and water (and something in the water), which appear frequently throughout. They also seem to be almost an introduction, because Jonathan sings them very quietly, only to shout the next line, “Bring back my boy!” ferociously. The “I loved him” (and later calling the border guards handsome) suggest this song is from the point of view of a woman. “Will you let me through to the enemy lines one more time?” There’s a war going on, and the “Bring back my boy, I loved him” suggest to me that the boy in question probably died in that war. “My head is a flame, my body distant, and I am fading out” combined with the later lines “Hold my arm, will you, hold my arm harder”–this is not a stable woman. Something is happening to her. “The roads and the fences”–she’s traveled to see him, to meet him, maybe to die with him. The last line is another image that gets repeated throughout the album–“there are diamonds in the water.”

2. Red Sea, Black Sea
The first verse of this is terrifying and reenforces the death idea. “And bathed in this light we will swim again.” If this “terrible light” replaces the sun and the moon, it could be death (as in “go into the light, my son”), and it will reunite them (in water). Water is an element associated with emotion, so perhaps the water is love? I dunno… that might work. Either way, this seems to be from the male point of view, and it seems as though he’s talking about going to war and certain death: “Turn your transmitters off, we are not coming back and the pearls of our eyes are turning black.” The war idea is reinforced by “The whole thing’s changed in unthinkable ways and now you’ve come to inherit it,” with the idea of inheritance suggesting a parent-child relationship. But the other use of second person–“Why did you come to corral everyone when you’re just pushing the darkness around?”–almost seems like an address to death itself, or maybe to those behind the war? Hm.

3. White Waves
This has another terrifying line in “There’s something singing in the ice in the deepest part of the world.” I don’t know what that means, but it’s scary. The line “He took me out to the tide to make pearls of my eyes and uncover me again without asking” seems like this switches back to the feminine point of view, is the second time eyes are referred to as pearls and continues the water theme. The diamonds are called up again, and here they definitely seem tied to a woman’s sexuality (“between him and the diamonds I would not give, but maybe tonight I will”). If that’s the case, it would make sense that there would be diamonds in the water, but this isn’t a happy song by a long shot–“I’m bound and flayed alive” is not a pleasant, loving experience. There’s a “black cloud over the water,” a “film across [her] eyes” and the waves are turning white (which means rough water). Love isn’t what she thought–it’s changed, become more violent now that sex has been introduced. And then there’s “Hold that child in your arms”–is this the same child that was inheriting the new world in the last song?

4. Palo Santo
Because this is the title track (and has the associations of the album title), there has to be some major significance to it in the story. I’m not sure who’s narrating this one, but it mentions the wind, the water and the island again. The gut reaction I have to the island is that it’s a goal, a paradise (it was “in the sun” in the first song). If the title is a phallic reference, then “holy sap, smoky light” is fairly clear. The “holy melody” that will bring these things, though… I dunno, this is a tricky one. But it’s peaceful, serene… a good thing.

5. Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five
This, on the other hand, is one of the more violent songs on the album. The first few lines call back to the war–suggest being a soldier (“he’s getting used to it now, how each one falls away in that hoary light”) and how it’s changing the male character. This change is also reflected in the use of the word “hoary” (meaning icy), which reflects the icy change the woman felt in “White Waves.” The second verse is maybe a coldness after that change, “where every angel looks dead, where every face is a lie.” However, I think it shifts points of view after that point, because of the line “Daddy come back to me now.” Is this the child from “White Waves” narrating? The line “when they pull me out alive” suggests that child is being born as his(?) father is off fighting/dying in the war, which would fit with what we’ve seen thus far.

6. Nobody
This is a heartbreaking song. It’s narrated by a third party, but about the woman. They’ve had sex (“his little hook, your little eyelet,” “and when he comes” etc), but there’s a disconnect there (“his mouth still denies what your heart just knows”). The second verse references bombs falling, but I think this is tying the idea of war and sex together into the same event (what one is to him, the other is to her, or something like that). The part that mystifies me a bit is “nobody would ever know […] how you would reply.” She’s doing something unexpected… but what?

7. Sing, Little Birdie
This has a similar feel to “Palo Santo.” I think this is the male narrating, though, since the woman has associated herself with birds before (as in “La Dame et la Licorne”), so he seems to be calling her, saying “tug at my darker side.” The second verse suggests he’s using her: “fly to the bed we are confined, combing the cancers out of our lives.” And there is a sense of dominance in the last line (“And who’s tongue gave you life but mine?”). Is this a misperception on his part? The prior track would seem to suggest so…

8. Johnny Viola
The title and the ending line (about love leaving like silvery birds) make this seem like it’s about the man. The first verse is clearly about being unsatisfied and unable to love (“Is there a medical term for a heart that’s been removed?”). The eyes are veiled, which calls back to the image in “White Waves” (I think this is his version of that song)–they’ve changed, can no longer see what they once saw. Again, waves have become frozen, replaced by ice and snow (verse 2), which also suggests the inability to love. The ending is somewhat unsettling–“Your eyes are as wild and lifeless as the moon.”

9. Failed Queen
This is where things kind of turn around, I think. “These were the words of the wounded man,” opens this song, so this is a third person speaking about the man, who speaks the middle verse, where he says “Her coldest eye should have changed my mind.” That makes it seem that she left him, not the other way around. “Though the queen has died, she has multiplied.” Aha! Did she die in childbirth? Is that how she replied in “Nobody?” (That would make the line about “the ancient shapes of crows” from that song make sense–crows are death omens). If so, then “La Dame et la Licorne” isn’t about her trying to join him in death, but about trying to return FROM death TO him and “Johnny Viola” is him learning of her death when he returns from fighting. Hmm. “Crawled through a hole in a lake of ice”–is this the son narrating about his father? Maybe.

10. Hail Mary
This is a prayer, obviously, but it starts “Hail Mary, full of death, sing me a bitter song,” so… “The hail from this blackened cloud”–another ice reference. It’s destroying the insignificant things (“our argument about the temperature and the time”). “And we march in our rows and rows under a burning hand past the scars of a wounded land”–so we’re back in the war here. The sarcasm in “God save the chamberlain…”–he’s lost what he’s fighting for, so all that’s around him is death now. “The child who is nearly born waits just to do you harm like the shock of a broken arm”–the child reminds him of what he lost? He can’t feel love at all, even for it? “Nearly born,” though… did it die with her? If so, what about the “pull me out alive” line? Hmm.

11. Going is Song
“Oh Daddy, I’m lost in your overcoat”–so that part is a child to a father. And this part is “If I live or die I am free again.” But then it becomes “Oh joy of mine, swelling inside of me” and “while you live, when you die, you will be free again,” which is a mother to her child. So the woman could be talking to her father in the beginning (something I haven’t considered in the rest of this, really), or the song could switch points of view. This also has roads and snow and wind many of the images from “La Dame et la Licorne”–it seems to mirror that song in a lot of ways, but where that was pleading, this is peaceful. It ends with the line “You are free.”

See? It’s a complex record. This is the kind of writing I love–it’s all layered in and around upon itself. If anyone has the time/interest, I’d love to hear some additional interpretations or other thoughts.

And because I can, a couple live videos.

White Waves

Red Sea, Black Sea

Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five


Written by Sarah K

June 27, 2008 at 6:58 pm

3 Responses

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  1. “I’m bound and flayed alive” shh, shh, it’s okay. 😉 maybe we’re just into different stuff. 😉

    ahhh, in joke. Anyway, those lyrics were fascinating. I’m on the first song right now (as far as the videos go), but this is a CD I definitely, definitely want to check out. Thanks.

    Marshall B

    June 27, 2008 at 8:29 pm

  2. o.0 Oh my.

    But yeah… absofuckinglutely amazing album–I’ve had it on repeat for like a month. And their latest one, Rook is just as good.

    Sarah K

    June 27, 2008 at 9:00 pm

  3. I love the lighting on that Red Sea, Black Sea video. And the way that guy smacks the bells.

    In the first video, White Waves, I get the feeling the audience isn’t very attentitive =P.

    I love lyrics like this. But I’m really really terrible at interpreting lyrics. It takes me forever listening to an album to relaize it’s a concept album, usually.

    Jacob Z

    June 27, 2008 at 11:19 pm

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