Individual songs often can serve to tell a story — good or bad. Cream played a song called Crossroads, later widely covered by Phish — it was based on the story of how Robert Johnson got to be great at playing the guitar after meeting the devil at a crossroads and selling his soul.
You can even hear young Taylor Swift tell the story of love in her own words in a song titled “Love Story.”
It is one thing to craft together a tale that lasts a few minutes and
has an appreciable melody. It is entirely another to try to put
together an album that keeps to a cohesive storyline and tells, over
the course of a number of songs, a story.
I was first introduced to the band Midlake by a coworker who told me that a different coworker of mine was trying to buy their 2008 album The Trials of Van Occupanther on vinyl but was having difficulty doing so. I was inclined to be interested as the directives of seven inches of awesome would have me be. I borrowed the CD from my coworker and gave it a listen and was rather blown away.
Before I get into the story aspect, I want to approach the album from an instrumental angle. I think that most people listening to the album would, if they did not know anything about it, assume that it was recorded sometime in the 1970s rather than the mid 2000s. It has a wonderfully lush tapestry of sound created by vocal harmonies and a mixture of string instruments, woodwinds, as well as guitars, piano, and drums. Here is the official video for the first song on the album, called Roscoe.
The song, incidentally, is a great introduction to the album — we meet the title character — not Roscoe, but Van Occupanther. The song name comes from a name that Van Occupanther dreams up for himself in an alternate reality. It seems that no matter what the reality of ones life — whether one is living in 1960s England or a generic European setting of the middle ages — there always exists some inner desire to be somewhere else or someone else.
Another tremendous track I would like to highlight — I will pause to let you know that there is not a single song on the album that can be tossed away — is the song that lends itself to the name of the album itself, Van Occupanther. The song comes from the perspective of Van Occupanther as he composes himself during a moment of duress.
I must be careful now in my steps
Years of calculation and the stress
My science is waiting, nearly complete
One glass will last for nearly a week
Often while listening to the songs one is left full of questions — I find that to be a good thing when reading a story as complicated as this one. Who is Van Occupanther? One glass of what? What sort of science does he practice?
I won’t spoil the album for you with all of my theories on what it all means but I highly suggest you pick up a copy of the album and decide for yourself. Only two hundred copies were pressed to vinyl, so you will most likely have to buy it in CD or MP3 format.
Great article, Gordon! I love the examination of the album as more than just a bunch of songs. You really can reveal a lot more about the music with a cohesive core.
Indeed. Though I never got into them, Coheed and Cambria have a series of albums that all tie together and have a large story to tell – sort of like a series of novels. 🙂
Gordon, I would have surely thought this is to be a ’70s album unless you pointed it out…you are right – the songs resonates the same flavor, thanks for sharing!