Over the years, I’ve listened to more music than I probably should have. In recent years, it’s gotten harder to find a record that gives me the buzz I used to get from finding a new favorite. I keep looking, but it all sounds like stupid nonsense. At least it did until I found the debut full-length by a Seattle-based acoustic duo called the Dutchess and the Duke.
Cleverly titled She’s the Dutchess and He’s the Duke, this deceptively simple-sounding upbeat collection of songs has pulled me back so many times, I can barely force myself to listen to anything else.
And, yes, I know you probably won’t agree with me, because She’s the Dutchess and He’s the Duke is a particular, dark and quirky record, loaded with references to death, self-destruction, personal doubt and the need to identify that broken part of one’s own psyche; it’s like I have met my soul mate. We were going to get married, but then I bought an extra copy, and now the three of us are worried about being prosecuted for bigamy.
Among the things I like about the album is the fact that the first line of the first song, “Reservoir Park,” ends with the word sea, and the second line ends with the word see — a clever rhyme indeed. It is also within the opening song that not being able to see the sun is introduced as one apparent cause of the singer’s mental instability.
Thereafter, the singer expresses a wild array of doom-based philosophies. Various references suggest that his muse is a prostitute, someone so terribly self-deluded and beyond redemption as to believe that better days are just around the corner, even though she can’t hold yourself together as the days go by (from “Out of Time”).
The song “Strangers” finds the singer preparing to bury his former friend face down in the dirt, even as he realizes that their relationship has changed him significantly: I’ve added up all the things you’ve done / and I’ve taken a good look at the man I have become / and maybe we’re not strangers after all.
“Mary” is the title of track 7, a song wherein the singer explains, You taught me how to love wrong and I learned it so long ago / now I can’t change. Ultimately, his assessment of the damage of this relationship is so all-encompassing that his only redemption is in the closing line, where he insists, I ain’t gonna say your name no more / I ain’t gonna say your name.
“You Can Tell the Truth Now” (track 8) is addressed to someone who is dead. Here our singer asks about the dead person’s last thoughts and what she thought about the singer, really.
Track 9, “I Am Just a Ghost,” warns away any potential intimates. The song seems to begin after he has decided to become a ghost, but by the end of the song, he merely repeats the title, present tense, done.
The album ends with “Armageddon Song,” wherein he revisits the value of sunshine mentioned in track 1: Sun keeps shining on the pines / I’m feeling all right. Things are a bit more complicated than that, however, as he describes universal death: If there came an Armageddon shooting down from the heavens spittin’ white hot bullets from the sky / if the whole wide world was dead and destructed, baby / you ain’t gonna find a single tear in my eyes / ’cause everybody knows it, baby, we all gonna die / and it don’t even matter how and it don’t matter why / for now I got you, baby, by my side / and, baby, I’m feeling alright.
The theological ramifications of the sequencing of these last two songs, in particular, could change their individual meanings, but that goes to why I think this is a great album; it works as a song-cycle, with each song contributing to the gravity and playfulness of the whole. It’s the most profound record I’ve heard in a long time. It hits me squarely in the center of so many comfort zones, it’s gonna make me have to start worrying about my own sanity. Someday.
For further listening: Bonnie “Prince” Billy I See a Darkness, natch. Leonard Cohen Songs of Love and Hate, or anything by Leonard Cohen, really; he’s on the cover of this month’s Mojo magazine, which comes with a free CD of Cohen covers.