Being fully middle-class with fully middle of the road tastes I occasionally listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered, which fits snugly amongst Stuff White People Like, being self-consciously mainstream alt. In the sonic arena I must be whitish as I find their selections tolerable and every now and again appealing; luck prevents me from regular visits as I find the hosts gratingly annoying with their lame humour and watery sarcasms.

Just the other day they opened a show by playing Regina Spektor’s All the Rowboats. I knew nothing about the classically-trained Spektor until a later wikicheck, apart from her dramatic Apres Moi. And also that in a fiction manuscript I read she was the soundtrack choice of a couple of lesbians making out.

All the rowboats, in the paintings
They keep trying to row away
And the captain’s worried faces
Stay contorted and staring at the waves

After the song finished I found myself rewinding the podcast to play it again. And again. When does a song become an addiction, an obsession? What peculiar personal associations must be made for a tune to become an earworm? I must have played it a couple of dozen times (mm, or more).

(For instance, ridiculous I know, but it faintly reminds me of The Angels No Secrets. Something about the conviction in the vocals and the propulsion? And the otherworldly imaginative leap in the lyrics connects to a poetic strategy of defamiliarising the obvious, like this poem by Wislawa Zymborska that arrived in the mail.)

It’s a mysterious lyric and I wasn’t at all sure I heard correctly: was this really a song about being in a museum, about rowboats in oil paintings trying to row away, row away? And whispering in Dutch and Latin? Being a museum fan, I was entranced, all the time unsure what I was hearing. I thought about being recently in the Louvre, I thought of Bruegel, I thought of Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts.

There is something strangely thrilling about it; partly the uncanny lyrics and partly the tension between the urgency of its meter and the claustrophobia of the subject.

Here is the tune at her website (at time of posting) promoting it as the single to her new album. This is the polished instrumented version opening with an electronic wash, drums kicking in a few bars on. She’s had the song for at least seven years, but had only performed it live. Watch this youtube to see how far a piano, a voice and mike can take you; watch her beatboxing. (To skip her very charming banter, start at 2:00)

Here is a cleanly sound-edited piece culled from her live performances over lyrics, which partly disclose the mystery.

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Top: Thomas Eakins’ self-portrait hidden in The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt In A Single Scull).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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