Sunday, July 12, 2009

“Charlie Darwin” by The Low Anthem – Trying to Find Meaning Despite the Artists

“Charlie Darwin” is a seductive, ethereal, and extremely vexing song on the recent album Oh My God, Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem. (Consider this trio to be a “folk” group, but that label doesn’t tell you much.) The titles alone drew me in. But I have spent the better part of a week struggling over the words and music to just this single song, avoiding any exegesis of the rest of the album for fear of a neurological overload.

I have found the song irresistible, but I still don’t understand it, though I have some ideas about what it might mean.

Upon first hearing, I was struck by the astounding vocal, the song is a lyrical hymn. Yet, I initially saw little reason to think that it was in any meaningful way really about Charles Darwin. Charlie Darwin? (Perhaps, I should just have stuck to that position.)

My usual stance is that a work of art stands alone, separate from the life of its creator, or, even the creator’s thoughts on what his or her work might actually mean. I don’t ignore this information, I just prefer to form my opinions before being contaminated by others’ viewpoints. But, finding the song’s lyrics to be ambiguous, I felt in need of some help.

Bob Boilen, host of National Public Radio’s All Songs Considered, has asserted that the album “has underpinnings of Charles Darwin's history, all set in a folky and sometimes hymnal quality." [Link here.] Okay, though I’m not quite sure what “underpinnings of Charles Darwin’s history” means, Boilen is pointing me toward that Charles Darwin after all. (By the way, Boilen considers “Charlie Darwin” one of the three best songs of 2009, so far.)

I paid a visit to the official The Low Anthem web site. It’s pretty obvious that evolution is on the agenda – there are these legged Jesus fish appearing in places. (The lyrics cited in this posting are from the group's web page.)

Then I made the mistake of reading some of the comments made by the two core members of The Low Anthem, composer and singer Ben Knox Miller and bassist Jeff Prystowsky.

Miller has said, "Darwin's ideas are the liberator of the individual from different false structures of meaning; obsolete ethical codes . . . . He challenges us to look at where our codes have come from. Structures of meaning have been and continue to evolve much the same as species.”
[Jonathan Bastian, The Many Layers of The Low Anthem, Aspen Daily News Online, August 15, 2008.]

Uh oh, I seem to have fallen into the deep end of a pool full of what? Social Darwinism? Be careful how you extend Darwinian evolution into the social and moral sphere.

Also troubling is Prystowsky’s comment, “What does love mean if survival of the fittest is actually the way that everything came to be?” Adding, “. . . it’s such a cutting theory to think that maybe our feelings of love and connection to our fellow man are somehow in our own interest, that they’re selfish . . . . That has a significant impact on the art that you make and the way you live your life.” [Carolyn Gregoire, The Low Anthem Inspired by Dylan & Darwin, BlackBook, June 30, 2009.]

Not sure I want to contemplate what that means for the way he lives his life.

I really hoped we’d put some distance between Darwinian evolution and Social Darwinism which has used the idea of the survival of the fittest to justify a mélange of unappealing doctrines and movements such as laissez-faire capitalism, imperialism, militarism, and eugenics. Not an honorable track record.

Given where my exploration had taken me, I was tempted to relegate the song to a dark recess of my iPod. Yet, I continued to play it and mull over the lyrics, while trying to put some distance between what the artists have said and any meaning I could construct for the song.

I’ve ultimately concluded that “Charlie Darwin” (the song) is not, to me at least, a Social Darwinist tract. If pressed, I’d say the essence of the song is this – adherents of the old order (read creationists) call on a god (yes, lower case as Miller writes it) to save them as they sink into an endless sea, even as Darwin launches a new vessel on a new journey. Anti-religion, perhaps.

The opening stanza signals a journey to a new age (“Set sails I feel the winds a’stirring/Toward the bright horizon set the way”) and toward a new social compact (Cast your wreckless [sic] dreams upon our Mayflower”).

I wrestled with the syntax of the first part of the second stanza – “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin/Fighting for a system built to fail . . . .” It only makes sense to me if Darwin’s words are being ignored by those “fighting for a system built to fail” – that is, creationism. The creationists’ vessels are sinking. The song speaks in the first person at the end of the second stanza when the speaker seems to suddenly realize that “As far as I can see there is no land . . . .” Is this speaker despairing because Darwin’s theory has somehow caused the creationist vessels to spring leaks with no land in sight? Seems so.

The chorus of “Oh my god, the waters [sic] all around us” is ironic. A lower case god that has left the speaker in an endless ocean even as he appeals to it for help. Darwin’s Mayflower in contrast seems to be set on a journey with a destination.

The third stanza is problematic, beginning “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin/The lords of war just profit from decay . . . .” Again, I have to assume that the actors in the second line – “The lords of war” – are not heeding Darwin’s word as they take the spoils of war. But, wait, might these not be the very agents of the Social Darwinism, rooting militarism in natural selection and the survival of the fittest, that The Low Anthem confounds with Darwinian evolution?

And why “Charlie?” Using a nickname like this is usually a disparaging tactic. I don’t get it.

In the end, I threw up my hands in defeat. A BBC reviewer called the song “pretty opaque.” A wonderful description. Yes, maybe it’s just a sophomoric muddle that sounds pretty, though it leaves me a bit uneasy.


  1. I too found the song hauntingly mesmerizing. And I struggled to wrap the lyrics around my brain and understand them. I thought I had also thrown my hands up in the air and decided I had come to an acceptable enough conclusion for myself, a simple one - Mayflower, pilgrims, leaving England and an old caste system decaying. And yet, here I am, reading what you have to say. Obviously, my brain does not feel wrapped tightly enough.

  2. Sorry to take so long posting your comment (vacation sans access to the Web will do that). I agree that the song is mesmerizing even if its meaning remains uncertain.

  3. Tony, I appreciated your musing about the meaning of "Charlie Darwin." My main comment is that you need not conflate Darwinism with Social Darwinism. You may already be familiar with "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins. I highly recommend it. Like much of his writing, it's a vigorous (accessible) defense of Darwinism. He takes pains to separate evolution from its dismal distant cousin, Social Darwinism. In fact, it is precisely because we have evolved to the point of self-consciousness that we can steer the course of our own evolution now. Altruism may have developed as a matter of self-interest, but we can now form a basis for it without strict reliance on individual (or genome) survival. And, as the book takes great pains to show, we don't need a god, either.

    My hopeful interpretation of the song is that Charlie Darwin is taking us on a scary trip, where the oceans appear to be endless. But since Low Anthem endorses Darwin, I choose to interpret the journey as other than hopeless.

  4. Lately I've noticed things in my life, like my lunches, sleep habits, vacations, and daily commutes, are giving way to be better at my job. If I can get more done, I'll be smarter, more appreciated, and most of all, I'll earn more money. I look at the people rushing through McDonald's in the morning and driving for hours a day on the highway to perform tasks for a huge multi-national corporation. I look at my cell phone, laptop, emails, planner, and try to figure out how I can do more.

    What I take away from the song is this (and this reflects my own opinions, obviously): Charles Darwin had it all wrong, rather the lessons we take from Charlie are in the wrong context. Life is not about trying to survive. If it were (like it is becoming today) the beauty and joy we experience in idyllic or sentimental moments would be replaced with mechanisms for gaining more personal power and health. "a system built to fail"

    1. Thank you for your thoughts - this is my leaning as well. I love this song - the music and voice are haunting, it's a truly beautiful creation.

    2. I respect different opinions about the meaning of the song and what it says to different listeners. I think it is helpful in addressing Charles Darwin in the context of the song to recognize that Darwin wasn't addressing your specific life and how you lead it, but, rather, life writ large.

  5. Clearly, whatever its merits, this is a song that just keeps on giving.

  6. As it appears I am not the only child whose parents saw fit to name me "Anonymous" (tic and a wink) I will identify myself as "A1" (Anonymous1, of the first post).

    Re: Paragraph 16-"I wrestled with the syntax of the first part of the second stanza - ..."
    You make a good point that it may be in reference to "creationists". But could it also be Darwin's system, the theory itself? (Please excuse my difficulty in finding the words to explain this.) "...fighting for a system built to fail." Does that sound at all as if they are saying Darwin was fighting for a system (his theory), which based on "survival of the fittest", means that all systems will eventually fail? All systems do eventually fail whether they be man-made or evolutionary. As any kind of sytem rises and takes dominance, it affects all others, causing changes that will eventually come back to become the demise of the dominant system. All systems will eventually fail-that is the natural order. Change is constant (biological, ecological, geological,etc). Taking very liberal license to reword the lines--Charles Darwin is fighting for understanding and acceptance of his theory, a theory that is about systems that will eventually fail-any system-and a new system will replace it. But it too will be a system that is "built to fail," (having built within it the design to succeed as well as to eventually fail). I am not a student of natural history but it does seem to me that everything that comes,will eventually go, regardless of man's involvement.
    I hope what I have tried to say makes some sense. It's very late, I'm tired, and I'm not even sure I, myself, understand what I've just written so forgive me if it sounds like a bunch of muck and mulch.

    As to why they call him "Charlie", I think it just sounds better than Charles would have-an artist's creativity kind of thing-making the song more personal.

  7. There's a beautiful stop-frame animation video for this song on the band's website. It shows a plasticine paleontologist sailing to an island to discover a fossil skull under a windmill... the dig unleashes a rising flood of water which eventually leaves him perched on the top of the windmill pondering the meaning of the skull... not sure if this gives any hint of the meaning?

    I do think you're being a bit hard on the band though by suggesting they might be Social Darwinists - it's certainly not Social Darwinism to suggest that feelings of altruism and connection to others of our species have their origins in our evolutionary history, and its difficult to deny that this does throw up some disturbing philosophical questions to those of us who grew up with a dogmatic religious view of right and wrong... I don't claim to have any great insight into the lyrics but I take this song to be a hauntingly beautiful lament for the loss of faith and certainty... something that troubled Charlie Darwin himself.

  8. Jon - Thanks. I really like your take on the song - "a hauntingly beautiful lament for the loss of faith and certainty." I just watched the video and, though it's interesting and a bit chilling, it didn't do anything to clarify the meaning of the song for me. As for my concern about Social Darwinism, it stemmed from what I thought was a troubling comment from bassist Jeff Prystowsky: “What does love mean if survival of the fittest is actually the way that everything came to be?” It's the "everything" that really troubles me since I took his question as rhetorical. Coincidentally, I'm reading Andrew Brown's The Darwin Wars -- an interesting examination of the bitter fight between different elements within the scientific community over the appropriate reach of the application of the theory. The book reinforces my reluctance to accept overreaching statements in this arena.

  9. I appreciate your point of view on this and the resulting dialogue that has transpired. You and the others who’ve posted have brought to light many possibilities that hadn’t crossed my mind. Although I find it very tempting to approach it from a reductionist perspective and dissect each element I feel the song is better understood with a lesser degree of analysis, taking it in on a more holistic level. Below are my impression, which I feel the overall tone of the song corroborates.

    ‘Set the sails I feel the winds a'stirring
    Toward the bright horizon set the way
    Cast your wreckless dreams upon our Mayflower
    Haven from the world and her decay’

    The above verse, to me, is quite simply saying the time for change is nigh, we’ve strayed much too far off course and the author wishes to close the current chapter and begin completely anew.

    ‘And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
    Fighting for a system built to fail
    Spooning water from their broken vessels
    As far as I can see there is no land
    Oh my god, the water's all around us
    Oh my god, it's all around’

    ‘A system built to fail’ represents capitalism (in its current state) overcoming nature and throwing everything off kilter and, the disenchantment of the masses that inevitably ensued. Well aware the perils of our current situation however it would seem we’ve gone much too far to return. Hence ‘spooning water from their broken vessels’, symbolizing the attempt to right these matters. ‘As far as I can see there is no land’ and the use of the word spoon in lieu of something more along the lines of say a bucket, refers to this attempt as being futile. ‘Oh my god, the water's all around us’ is just another way of saying there’s no land in sight, emphasizing the feeling of helplessness.

    ‘And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
    The lords of war just profit from decay
    And trade their children's promise for the jingle
    The way we trade our hard earned time for pay’

    More references to the same…

    ‘Oh my god, the water's cold and shapeless
    Oh my god, it's all around
    Oh my god, life is cold and formless
    Oh my god, it's all around’

    Again, reinforcing the feeling of helplessness and being overwhelmed. The feeling of having lost control and feeling disconnected. Being surrounded by something as vast and insurmountable as the sea, yet completely devoid of life or spirit.

    Regarding the choice by the author to refer to Darwin as ‘Charlie’, I perceive it rather as a term of endearment. An attempt to make the matter more personal.

    It’s truly a beautiful song and I agree with the BBC reporter in saying its rather opaque, I also agree with the fellow from NPR who thinks it to be one of the best songs of this year.

  10. It's worth noting that Darwinism applied to meaning doesn't have to be about Social Darwinism. I read that as referring to the development, use, and discarding of ideas and ways of thinking rather—which is a field of study called memetics. Memetics and the concept that ideas may evolve (in the environment of our minds and word of mouth, where only the most useful ideas "survive") is interesting, and thankfully unrelated to the shameful legacy of Social Darwinism.

    Thanks for your ponderings. I was wondering about this song too, and your digging for meaning was helpful. Whether you like the interpretation of the song that involves memetics or not, I hope I've given you a new piece of the puzzle to ponder.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I've been reading about memetics and find the arguments interesting and they may be helpful in this instance. Regarding the song and Social Darwinism, I guess I resist a facile application of "survival of the fittest" to all human interaction and behavior which the band members seemed to suggest underlies the song.

  12. Having seen the video the first time I heard the song; I took the meaning to be that Darwin's theories opened a flood gate that will never be dammed. Probably more to it than that but it's a beautiful song.

    Check out The Avett Brother's "Emotionalism" albumn for more poignant lyrics/melodies.

  13. Perhaps the use of the word "wreckless" is some sort of wordplay and not a misspelling. I suppose that would be lost on a listener though and only realized when reading the lyrics...

  14. I guess putting "sic" after "wreckless" does carry a negative connotation. I wasn't really being critical, just precise so a reader wouldn't assume it was my typo. I do like the idea that it's a bit of clever wordplay (though, as you note, spelling variations in song lyrics don't have any impact for the listener).

  15. I have been listening to this song almost non-stop for days, and I understand it less now than I thought I did the first time I heard it. The video, with the man in the boat, and the digging up of the skull, the windmill, and the building, while very thoughtfully made, only serves to compound the enigmatic nature of the song. It is, without question, the most beautiful song I have ever heard, and that alone is impressive, but it has reached a part of my mind that has been gathering dust waiting for any meaningful interaction with the modern world. The only real thought I can come up with after all my effort to understand it is this: "Fresh pineapple is really good." My mind is blown.

  16. Perhaps it's not meant for you or I to rationalize and understand. It's not 'music for the masses' by a sell-out band. They write and perform (excellent concert at Black Cat, DC in 2009) more for themselves and their interpretation, than to try to persuade or dissuade an opinion. I say they're telling a story designed for themselves... we can interpret it any way that we want. True art isn't to be explained, just appreciated.

  17. Yes, it's their art and their perspective, but part of my enjoyment of any art comes when I move beyond the visceral and consider the what and why.

  18. I was just introduced to this song like maybe 30 minutes ago, and like you I was obsessed to find a meaning to the lyrics. I want to say first of all that I don't think that this song was written to have a definitive "meaning", but rather, like most great songs, there is enough room for play so that the listener has the opportunity to find meaning in the song for themselves. So, for me, after watching the video, reading the lyrics, and reading the comments here and at various other web sites, my conclusion as to the meaning of the song is this.

    The song seems to me to lament the plight of our own humanity and contrast it with the plight of other not so successful species i.e. neanderthals etc. For all our glory, and all our achievements we may not make the final cut as a species, all due to the pettiness of our own reckless behavior.

  19. as a music critic, you are a great scientist

  20. I take it something about my attempt to understand the lyrics of the song offended you. Care to engage constructively in the effort to figure out these lyrics?

  21. Any thoughts on the meaning of "OMGCD"? The song is my favorite on the album.

  22. I won't be much help. I love the melody but perhaps because it seems to be such an Americana standard. I don't have a take on the meaning of the words, having wrestled particularly with the final stanza which may be at the heart of it. I also suspect the line "I set these tiresome codes down where you lay" is critical. But I've largely punted. Sorry.


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