Great Band, Shit Song #1 : “The Bagman’s Gambit” by The Decemberists

Welcome to the first in what will become an ongoing series of MP3 posts about songs released by bands we love which, well, are just a little bit shit. You know the sort: you’ve got on an album by one of your favourite artists and you get about 4 songs in and something comes on that just makes you groan with pain. It’s a song you never skip because, well, an album is meant to be heard as an album, but it’s really a chore to get through the track in question. We’re also looking for suggestions for tracks to be included in this series. If anybody wants to write a guest post about a song that really bothers them, use the contact details in the right-hand column. That said, here goes:

“The Bagman’s Gambit” by The Decemberists

A song about spies, the protagonist, a bureaucrat, meets a Russian spy, falls in love and she talks him into giving up state secrets. Eventually she is caught as a double agent by the Soviets and he uses his connections to rescue her and she disappears from his life. Then appears briefly years later in a passing car. This sounds like a tense, suspenseful Bond-esque tale of intrigue and romance – but it isn’t. In fact, it’s a boring dirge which gets in the way of the comical and mournful storytelling of the rest of the album. It flows badly, with just a repetitive guitar line through the overly-long verses and Colin Meloy isn’t so much singing as whinging out his nose.

Now, the thing about The Decemberists is that they tell great stories through both music and verse. You want to hear the full tale; you want to sing along. You feel for the characters’ travails; you laugh at their follies. All the storytelling in this track has you doing, however, is wishing for your own death to make it stop. The narrator is a fool who gives up state secrets for a bit of a roll in the sack. He’s high up enough in government to have state secrets, yet he’s so untrustworthy and pathetic that all it takes is a woman smiling at him before he’s slobbering and desperate that he’ll do whatever she wants – including risking the safety of his countrymen. The object of his affections is a foreign spy who uses and discards him. There is no point of sympathetic connection in this song so the story itself fails miserably. When you add to that the fact that musically it’s funereal and rather boring, it’s hard to engage at all with what you’re hearing. Even the fast bits are so obvious and uninspired it just makes the slow bits seem that much more dirge-like.

To make matters worse, “The Bagman’s Gambit” follows “The Sporting Life,” an amusing, upbeat track that will have you tapping your foot. It’s like driving along at a happy 70mph in traffic before slamming face first into a giant brick wall. You’re so disoriented from the mess that is “The Bagman’s Gambit” that when it finally finishes up after what seems like 13 hours of unmitigated pain and turns into “From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)” which is actually a rather touching ballad, you’re so sick of hearing slow, mournful wailing that you can hardly bear another three minutes of it, all you want is to get to something with a bit of a hook. So it ruins that song as well.

The Decemberists – The Bagman’s Gambit

The Decemberists – The Sporting Life

13 Responses to “Great Band, Shit Song #1 : “The Bagman’s Gambit” by The Decemberists”

  • Matthew Says:

    Great idea for a set of posts, but I have to admit I love this song. Seems almost shameful now.

  • JustHipper Says:

    What, you’re not going to call me names? Not a Zetlands fan then eh? ;).

    Seriously though, these choices are bound to be “controversial.” That’s kind of the idea. We’d like well-conceived counter-arguments if you think we’re way off base with a choice. This song though, it just really gets on my nerves. The Ledge, on the other hand, probably would have chosen “16 Military Wives” off Picaresque, and still may. So….

  • Matthew Says:

    Well I loved this song partly because I could almost imagine the movie, if you know what I mean. I haven’t heard it for a while though so I can’t defend the music directly – I’ll do my research tonight if I remember.

    As for dirges, I really don’t like My Own True Love (Lost At Sea) just because the music is unremittingly unvarying throughout. My choice for the Decemberists would probably have been the lifeless and dismal ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’ from the otherwise superb ‘Her Majesty The Decemberists’. It follows ‘Red Right Ankle’ which is equally quiet, but somehow manages to be delicate and lovely, whereas Stage is lumpen and morose.

    Oh and, er, you’re a clueless bastard (nearly forgot the name calling bit, sorry).

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  • Dutch Leonard Says:

    Aw come one, give it another listen or two, it will grow on you. 🙂

    I have been straining to hear what is being said during the orchestral part and google hasn’t been my friend to help me. I liked this track quite a lot for the story. It’s been my commuting album all week which helps to keep me awake because it is fun to sing along on a lot of the songs on this CD.

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