Songs About Los Angeles: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” by The Decemberists

April 10, 2009 at 9:15 am in Music


We get it. You're one part Royal Tenanbaum, two parts Edward Gorey.

I hated The Decemberists the instant I hit Play.  It was around 2004, I just moved here from the Bay Area, and a guy named Brian – who I always mixed up with a guy named Ryan – swapped me his copy of The DecemberistsHer Majesty in exchange for my copy of Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister.

There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you

It was really lead singer’s Colin Meloy’s nasally drip voice that got to me.  He sounded like he was channeling, in the worst way possible, David Bowie circa “Space Oddity.”  I saw their band picture and immediately grumbled that they were borrowing a little (a lot) too heavily from Edward Gorey and Masterpiece Theater.  I get that they are supposed to occupy a space left blaringly vacant by Neutral Milk Hotel’s break-up, supposed to be every Pitchfork-reading, thin-cordoroy-pants-wearing hipster’s wet, erudite fantasy of rich, complex lyrics.  And, indeed, their lyrics are disarmingly beautiful.  But, really?  I’d much rather read their poetry than listen to the books on tape version.

Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs are here
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore
Los Angeles, I’m yours

And then, as I rapidly hit the “Next” button on my CD player to skip from one grating song to another, I stumbled upon “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.”  I’m still not a big fan of the band, but yet — this is one of my favorite songs about Los Angeles.  I grew up where the LA County and Orange County border lines kiss, an area that is absolutely nothing like Los Angeles proper – although, heck, parts of Los Angeles proper aren’t really like Los Angeles proper neither.  I then escaped to the Bay Area for college, then moved back here, some 30 miles away from my hometown, to Los Angeles-the-city for grad school.  This is when I confronted our city for the first time or, rather, our city confronted me.  Everywhere I walked, I saw no one walking.  I saw girls pretending to be women.  I saw women pretending to be girls.  I saw boys idolized as men.  I saw men dripping entitlement (more so than usual).  I couldn’t find any lesbians outside a little corner shop in Silver Lake (I didn’t make it out to Long Beach until much later).  I saw everyone donning enormous sunglasses.  Even when it was overcast.  The song precisely captured my initial, grumbling feelings about this cemented, hot desert of a city.

O ladies pleasant and demure
Sallow-cheeked and sure
I can see your undies

This city seems to have a malicious way of forcing us into a hypocritical position of hating it for its superficiality, based on our own superficial assumptions of what it does, and does not, have.  I began to realize I was wrong (reluctantly) (very reluctantly), slowly, over time; what kicked it off was the first time I took the Red Line from Los Feliz to Downtown in 10 minutes flat.  There was something about waiting beside the tracks with a group of strangers, all waiting for their everyday ride to their everyday day-to-day lives that made me realize that Hey!  There is a city underneath the plastic!

Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs are here
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore
Los Angeles, I’m yours

Los Angeles is not all “garbled vomit,” but it does take an awful while to get through the algae, rubber tires, six-pack plastic rings, coin slots, and undies to find the bustling life under the waves.  Stick around, find the sweet spot between the traffic rushes, and you’ll find that our streets and boulevards take us past culinary wonders like Pizzeria Mozza and the churro truck in Echo Park; cozy music boxes like Hotel Cafe and The Echo; overplanned curiosities like The Grove and Beverly Hills; and great lezzie bars like The Normandie Room.

O great calamity
Ditch of iniquity and tears
How I abhor this place
Its sweet and bitter taste
Has left me wretched, retching on all fours
Los Angeles, I’m yours

And then let the sweetness turn into bitter distaste as you find yourself careening to a stop in the middle of Robertson, all due to the paps losing their lens caps over a many-times-in-a-lifetime shot of that nobody from “The Hills”, making you late for that meeting with your expert witness.  If you just find your way around them without nary a thought or gawk, and move on to the everyday part of your life that includes going to work, the beach, hiking in the canyon, and wondering aimlessly downtown – then you have given yourself to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, I’m yours
Los Angeles, I’m yours

The Decemberists’ conflicting feelings appear to nudge towards hatred, but, if romantic fiction has taught us nothing else, it is that hate like this really is puppy love.  If only The Decemberists understood that they were merely progressing, as we all do, in emotional maturity: from unhinged resent, like tourists who discovered, to their nasty surprise, that Hollywood is a gray slab of stone, to grounded appreciation, like residents who understand the irony of Hollwood being a gray slab of stone.  “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is the only song I like from The Decembrists, the only one where my general impatience with Mr. Meloy’s grating voice is tempered by the fact that it does, for once, match the lyrics and facetiously anti-anthem tone.  There’s a tinge of hopelessness in his melody, the way we Bay Area transplants reluctantly admit that, fine, we do like it here in Los Angeles.  Not only do we like it, we belong to it.

Los Angeles, I’m yours.

The music video for this song is astoundingly beautiful.  It’s The Nightmare Before Christmas meets Lemony Snicket meets adult swim.  If that’s not Los Angeles, I don’t know what is.

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This is one of a many-post series about Los Angeles love and hate songs.  Read up on Julia’s introduction to our showcase here.

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