Discover more from Colin Meloy's Machine Shop
Annotated Songs: Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
Of soldiers, builders, and Spaniards
“Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”1
From Castaways and Cutouts, Hush Records, 2002
And here I dreamt I was a soldier
And I marched the streets of Birkenau2
And I recall in spring
The perfume that the air would bring
To the indolent town
Where the barkers call the moon down
The carnival was ringing loudly now
And just to lay3 with you
There's nothing that I wouldn't do
Save lay my rifle down
And try one, and try two
I guess it always comes down to
All right, it's okay
Guess it's better to turn this way4
And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
The structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go5
Become a paid subscriber to The Machine Shop and get all the goods.
And here in Spain I am a Spaniard
I will be buried with my marionettes7
Countess and courtesan
Have fallen 'neath my tender hand
When their husbands were not around
But you, my soiled teenage girlfriend
How you furrow like a lioness8
And we are vagabonds
We travel without seat belts on
We live this close to death9
Written in a duplex in NE Halsey, Portland, Oregon, fall of 1999. Like a lot of songs, this one grew out of the chord progression, which was just two chords: C and D. The D is played like the C, just slid up two frets. The melody followed from there. It stayed untitled for a long time, until such a time when the thing just needed a title, so people knew what to play and, eventually, what it should be listed as on the back of the record. “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” was floated as a name and stuck. Looking through the lens of time, I wish I’d named it something else — “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” is awfully wordy. It was a hassle, just now, to rewrite it. The song’s called “ARCHITECT” on the setlists and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone inside the band refer to it by its full name. But, alas, here we are.
Oh boy, right off the bat. We’re in Holocaust territory. This was written around the same time as “Odalisque,” a song which also owes a debt to a particular book that was stuck in my head around that time: Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. I might’ve read it in a Holocaust Lit class in college; I can’t remember. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a powerful and moving narrative about a boy’s voyage through a wartime landscape. I had also recently seen the movie Come and See, and was fascinated by that era in history. What particularly fascinated me — and this really shines through in The Painted Bird — was how the horrors of the war and the pogroms and the concentration camps had transformed the European landscape into a kind reality that seemed unmoored from itself, where everything seemed to take on a folktale-like hue, at least in the retelling of it. How these atrocities, beggaring imagination, required a different, more ancient form of storytelling to recount them. So here’s our soldier, or rather the narrator’s dream of the soldier, enjoying the perfumed air of a newly-arrived spring, thinking fondly of his true love. It’s a folktale-like beginning — a very In the merry, merry month of May kind of mood, and yet hidden, just beyond that copse, are the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I found this incongruity interesting at the time, the friction between the tone of the song and melody and the actual landscape hidden inside the song. Would I write this verse now? I’m not sure.
I remember this word provoking a conversation with my sister, Maile, who copyedited the lyric sheet for me when we were putting together the record. Grammatically, it should be “lie.” The “lay” in the subsequent line about the rifle is okay — it’s just the “lie with you” that’s wrong. I’ve gone back and forth on this; I think I started correcting it to “lie” when I sang it live — even though it’s probably one of the lesser grammatical offenses I commit in my songwriting. Maile’s take was that it should be given a pass. Rock ‘n’ roll exists beyond the bounds of grammar. Nobody told Dylan that it should, ahem, actually be “Lie, Lady, Lie.” Or maybe they did, but we’re all thankful that Dylan did not take their advice. “Lie, Lady, Lie” is a terrible song, or at least a very different song. “Lay, Lady, Lay” is lovely.
The chorus follows in the footsteps of so many choruses before it — the grand tradition of creating a chorus out of a jumble of words just to get through the thing. It’s nonsense. Or rather, I should say, it invites the listener to make meaning out of a series of abstract notions. I think my intuition was that there was so much packed into the verse, so many words and ideas and notes and things, that I could not only get away with a whatever chorus, but it would actually serve the song, give the people a break from all the poesy. Similarly, I remember being a bit baffled about the shape of the chorus. I was stuck there for a while. All along, I think, I was aware of the chord progression’s similarity to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which is also just two chords revolving back and forth through the verses. I think the challenge I set to myself was this: write a chorus that distinguishes itself from the verse but doesn’t add any more chords. So I inverted the two chords, swapping the D and the C, and voila, a chorus was born. The Mac has one up on me in that the whole song is just those two chords (aside from the instrumental break). But we can’t all be the Mac.
Even though I tend to think of these “occupation songs,” as I’ve called them, usually are pieces of fiction — in that I feel like I’m writing about a character outside of myself — this verse is probably as personal as I’d written in those days. This idea of constructing a barrier around a relationship or a partner to keep you safe — it’s a powerful idea and maybe a dynamic that I was prone to in my twenties. I’m not sure I was aware how personal it was until well after I’d written it, when that relationship had disintegrated, when the balustrades had come down and we were free to go, and I was playing it and I thought, “Huh. I guess this is about me.”
Second chorus, same as the first. But this one is followed by a double instrumental break. How do you like that? This might be the one flaw in the song — nothing happens in that double break. I’m sure we recorded with the idea that something would go there, some kind of solo or something, but nothing ever arrived. The best we get is an organ fill over the piano that sort of hints at a solo, but is not one. Like my guitar forebears, Johnny Marr and Peter Buck, I have a certain amount of discomfort with a guitar solo and, particularly during this era of my music-making, I was loathe to even include them in songs. I am, however, very proud of the little electric guitar lick that runs throughout the song. It’s the best kind of picky guitar filigree that I love so much, simple and repeating, always almost overstaying its welcome.
Originally, this was castanets, not marionettes, which is miles better, but I was mindful that I’d already used the word castanets in a song for the record. It’s in “Clementine”: And I’ll play the clarinet / Use clamshells for castanets. I figured that I could only use the word once so I had to pick between the two — is it the clamshells? Or is it the Spaniard’s grave companion? I chose the former, because, I don’t know, I was more fond of it. So I had to find another thing a Spaniard would choose to be buried with, one that was, ideally three syllables long. I think it was Ezra that suggested marionettes and I just went with it because we didn’t have much time in the studio. So it stuck. I don’t love it, to be honest. Castanets is way better.
I like this line. I don’t know what it means, but I like it.
The song goes off the rails during this verse; we’re launched into more absurdist territory. Why Spain? Why the Spaniard? I think I thought it was funny at the time, a kind of unexpected right turn into the world of these Spanish vagabonds. Traveling without seat belts, tsk tsk.
Classic 2XL chorus at the end, that old saw. But with slightly changed lyrics! Who’s winning and who’s losing? It’s still nonsense, my friends. Still just words on the page. I remember playing the “CD Release Party” for this record (remember when we had those?) at the Blackbird in NE Portland and forgetting the double chorus. I’ve muffed many a song in my time, gentle reader, but there are some mistakes that stick with me forever. This is one of ‘em.
Simon Widdowson recorded this song at his studio in industrial Southeast Portland. The studio was called Are You Listening and was in a building a few blocks from the warehouse I was living in at the time. I think we only had a week or so to record all of Castaways and Cutouts so we had to move fast. Nate put it all on his credit card, bless his heart.