After last week’s investigation of “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League, we received a number of great suggestions for future consideration. And believe me, we’ll get to those. (Feel free to send more to firstname.lastname@example.org.) This week, though, I’m going back into my own mental archives for a song I must have heard 100 times in the mid-aughts before paying attention to the lyrics.
That song is “Fake Palindromes” by Andrew Bird, which you may know as the “dewy-eyed Disney bride” one from The Mysterious Production of Eggs, with its hammering rhythm and kickass electric violin solo. It sounds like triumph. Glorious, fist-pumping, indie triumph.
But my friends, it is most assuredly not triumph. Not even a little. Let’s go line by line and let ourselves be immersed in the total psychosis of Andrew Bird’s “poetry.” His lyrics are in bold, my commentary after.
(As usual, I don’t read any backstory until I finish. Googling happens later, after which we assign an Official Horror Rating.)
My dewy-eyed Disney bride, what has tried
Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?
A lot of time, it takes a song a few lines for the true horror to reveal itself. Not this time. We start with an image of a naive young girl, a Disney princess, which is kind of eerie all by itself when you throw in the word “bride.” It’s like some kind of American girl-next-door tableau turned on its head. And then we get to this: “What has tried swapping your blood with formaldehyde?”
Hmmm, interesting question. Formaldehyde is some kind of chemical compound (I will NOT bring science into this exercise, accuracy be damned), and one of its uses is to embalm dead people so they don’t rot before the funeral. But in that case, it’s applied over the skin. This new idea of replacing an innocent girl’s blood with the substance is just super, super disturbing. The atmosphere of death is tangible. WHO WOULD DO SUCH A THING, ANDREW BIRD?
Whiskey-plied voices cried “fratricide!”
I should point out now that while some musicians take pains to establish a location, a plot, or even an identifiable character, none of those seem to be priorities for Andrew Bird. I have no idea where we are, what we’re supposed to be doing, or who we’re talking about. This is the David Lynch movie of songs; just a lot of horrifying images, and the bare hint of a theme connecting them all in the loosest way possible.
So, now we’ve introduced a bunch of drunk people screaming the word “fratricide!”—which I actually thought was to kill a brother, but which apparently can also meaning killing a sister—and I can’t begin to guess why. Obviously there’s something abusive happening, but the identity of the victim and the perpetrator are vague. I’m not even sure it matters. I think maybe Bird just wants to get in our brains, and a girl being attacked by a formaldehyde-wielding psychopath surrounded by a screaming mob accusing her or him or someone else of fratricide…yeah, that’ll do the trick. I’m scared. I give up.
Jesus don’t you know that you could’ve died
(You should’ve died)
I like how for a quick moment, the singer becomes like a lecturing father. “Honey, how many times have I told you not to go to the formaldehyde parties? You could get hurt! Those kids are not careful! You know how they are. One minute everyone’s having fun, drinking whiskey—and I have no problem with that, as long as it’s done in moderation—and all the sudden it gets out of control, someone brings out the formaldehyde, and they want blood!”
This is a nightmare. I’m not even sure I want to keep writing about this. I feel like I’m inserting myself into those weird commercials for “American Horror Story.” I don’t even like watching those commercials, guys! I didn’t appreciate how quickly Bird’s imagery would creep under my skin. Just like formaldehyde. (Get out of the house right now. Run. RUNNNNN.)
With the monsters that talk, monsters that walk the earth
At this point, the song still seems to be about the world posing a threat to innocence. I mean, the formaldehyde/monster stuff could be metaphorical. All we really know is that a girl was in danger, and she managed to escape. I’ve still got that creepy David Lynch feeling in my stomach, nausea mixed with the kind of fear sharks can smell, but maybe it’ll turn out okay! Let’s see what the chorus has to say.
And she’s got red lipstick and a bright pair of shoes
More innocence imagery. She’s Little Red Riding Hood, trying to avoid the wolf. I feel sorry for her, and I’m sure nothing could shake this sympathy.
And she’s got knee high socks, what to cover a bruise
Hmm, okay. Not sure what to make of the bruise. Again, kind of just a creepy, Lynchian detail to upset the stomach.
She’s got an old death kit she’s been meaning to use
What the fuck? What’s a “death kit”?! Does anybody know what a death kit is? Is it a kit you use to bring about someone’s death?? Because that’s exactly what it sounds like. And urban dictionary confirms: It’s a collection of implements you’d use to kill someone if you really wanted to go in-depth.
The girl is evil! She’s not Little Red Riding Hood…SHE’S THE WOLF! This is the new twist. And I like how it’s an “old” death kit she’s had for a while. It’s the same casual way you’d talk about a Nordic-Track you bought for Christmas one year. “Yeah, I got this death kit a few years ago thinking I’d use it all the time, but honestly? It just sits in my basement gathering dust.”
She’s got blood in her eyes, in her eyes for you
She’s got blood
in her eyes for you
Last week we met a terrifying stalker man, but this is even worse. He was mostly hurt and only semi-dangerous, but now I get the sense we’re about to get serial-killed. There’s no mercy in bloody eyes! You either have blood or mercy! Never the twain shall meet!
Certain fads, stripes and plaids, singles ads
They run you hot and cold like a rheostat, I mean a thermostat
Yeah, modern life sure can be exhausting.
A rheostat, by the way, is used to regulate electrical current, such as when you have somebody tied up and are shocking them as a form of torture. I’m starting to think Andrew Bird didn’t just misspeak there. That’s no typo, gang: That was an intentional hint at what this crazy dewy-eyed Disney bride has in store for her victims.
So you bite on a towel
Hope it won’t hurt too bad
Somehow the most creepy part of that couplet is the use of the word “you.” In my mind, I’ve been imagining a scenario involving lots of other people, but definitely not myself. But with one pronoun, Andrew Bird puts us—you and me, law-abiding Americans!—onto a bench where we’re tied up being tortured by some girl with a death kit who’s dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. And who may have some formaldehyde in her blood? Look, the details aren’t important. The point is, we should all be numb with fear. I have a feeling this towel isn’t going to help very much at all.
Another note: If she’s the wolf, and we’re in the story, that makes us Little Red Riding Hood. Not sure how I feel about that. But I’ll try anything once.
My dewy-eyed Disney bride, what has tried
Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?
What monsters that talk, monsters that walk the earth
I really shouldn’t fall into the trap of interpreting this song, because that’s like trying to write a instruction manual based on the ravings of a schizophrenic, but maybe this girl is torturing us because of a traumatic event in her past that robbed her of her humanity? Perhaps she’s seeking some kind of nebulous revenge, and Andrew Bird is making a commentary on the cycle of abuse, and how it continually destroys the innocent? About how monsters make other monsters?
Of course, that could be the electric current talking. Did she have to attach them right to my eyelids? Was that totally necessary? It just seems cruel. Also, this towel is seriously useless.
And she says, “I like long walks and sci-fi movies”
Okay! Finally some normal conversation. Maybe we can relate to this girl, and this will all end peacefully.
“If you’re six foot tall and east coast bred”
Not exactly on the coast, if that’s what you’re asking, but I am from an east coast state. Just a little bit inland. I could get to the water in a couple hours. Also, I’m closer to 6-foot-1, but I’m assuming six feet was just a threshold rather than an exact height requirement. Let me know. My name’s Shane, by the way.
“Some lonely night we can get together”
“And I’m gonna tie your wrists with leather”
Whoa. Whoa, whoa, whoa. I mean, I’m not saying we can’t talk about our kinks once things progress a little bit, but at first I think we should take it pretty slow. Let’s make sure we work on a personal level first, you know? We’re getting way ahead of the game here. So let’s step it back, and tell me something fun we could do that’s more mild and enjoyable for both of us.
“And drill a tiny hole into your head”
“Yeah I’m gonna drill a tiny holleeeeee….”
Hey, what’s that noise? Hey! Is that a drill? You do know I wasn’t one of those people screaming ‘fratricide!’, right? That I wasn’t there at all? Doesn’t matter to you? Fair enough. At least give me a fluffier towel. AT LEAST A FLUFFIER TOWEL! COME ON!
[MUFFLED SCREAMS OF PAIN]
Wow! That was quite an adventure! I feel duly horrified, but also somehow refreshed. In the end, I think it was something we all needed to endure to learn about ourselves. Now we can go ahead and proceed with life, except that we’re monsters now.
So, what’s the deal with this song? It turns out “Fake Palindromes” evolved as a combination of a few earlier Andrew Bird songs, including one called “Trepanation,” which is the act of drilling holes into someone’s skull. That accounts for the scattered imagery and the lack of a cohesive, chronological story. But somehow, the helter skelter structure is perfect, because that’s how nightmares work. We skip from scene to scene, with leaps of logic and unexplained characters popping in all the time. That’s what makes it so gut-wrenching. Plus, the music is awesome. Well done, Mr. Bird! Truly terrifying, sir!
Official Horror Rating: 9.4/10
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