Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thick As Thieves

Thick As Thieves (from the album Ophelia)

Remember how it all began
the apple and the fall of man
the price we paid
so the people say
down a path of shame it led us
dared to bite the hand that fed us
the fairy tale
the moral end
the wheel of fortune
never turns again

The worst of it has come and gone
in the chaos of millennium
in the falling out of the doomsday crowd
their last retreat is moving slow
they burn their bridges as they go
the heretic is beatified
he'll teach the harlot's child to smile

Wracked again by indecision
should we make that small incision
testify to the bleeding heart inside?
we cut, we scratched
we rent, we slashed
and when he opened up at last
found a cul-de-sac
deep and black
of smoke and ash

The wicked king of parody
is kissing all his enemies
on the seventh day
of the seventh week
the tyrant's voice is softer now
but just for one forgiving hour
before the rise of his
iron fist again

I've come tonight
I've come to know
the way we are
the way we'll go
come to measure this
the width of the wide abyss

I come to you in restless sleep
where all your dreams turn bitter-sweet
with voodoo doll philosophies
and day-glo holy trinities

The crooked raft that leaves the shore
ferries drunken souls aboard
pilgrims march to Compostela
visions of their saint in yellow

All follow deep in trance
lost in a catatonic dance
know no future
damn the past
blind, warm, ecstatic
safe at last…

Dear Readers:

I don't know what this song is about.

Thanks for reading and see you next week!


I think it's important for every person to have a few unrealistic fantasies in their life and I would like to tell you about one of mine: I would like to have one hour to sit down with Natalie Merchant and interview her. I don't care about autographs, I don't want to take a picture with her, I don't need a hug. I just want an interview. (By the way, is it a little pathetic that in my fantasy I only give myself one hour? It's a fantasy, right? I could at least ask for two. Must I be modest even in my dreams?) This unrealistic hope is made stronger and more passionate every time I read or listen to a new interview with Natalie and hear her asked questions that are completely unnecessary and/or utterly inane.

"Natalie, can you explain why you decided to leave 10,000 Maniacs?" Oh, that's an excellent question and certainly not one we've heard the answer to about a million times...over the last seventeen years!

"Natalie, what do you think about current pop culture fill-in-the-blank celebrity? ...Oh, really? You've never heard of them?" Nice try, though, because goodness knows, if there's anything I want to hear one of the most gifted songwriters alive talk about, it's Lindsay Lohan.

"Natalie, why don't you have a sense of humor? I mean, you seem really, really boring. But, you know, in a cool way and everything. So...why is that?"

I once watched an interview with Natalie in which a very well-respected television journalist picked up her CD, read the titles to every song and then just looked at her expectantly. Was there a question there? A lot of these same journalists will then mention in their print articles that Natalie seems like "a tough nut to crack" or "awkwardly silent for long stretches of time." Well, no wonder! Ask a decent, respectable question from time to time and you might actually get a conversation going, morons!

Ahem. I apologize. I've gotten a bit carried away. The point I'm trying to make is that if I was given the opportunity to interview Natalie, I would do her (and her legion of fans, especially) the service of asking some questions that actually, oh, I don't know...provoke thought? That have answers that people are actually interested in hearing? That don't make her incredibly uncomfortable? That matter? Oh boy, I'm getting riled up again.

Of the countless questions I would like to ask Natalie, one of them surely would be, What is Thick As Thieves about? What do you think she would say? Well, here is something she actually has said about the song (without being asked, of course, because that would be ridiculous):

"There have been songs that I didn't know exactly what they were about until I had performed them for a couple years. A couple of songs I've written I still don't know what they're Thick As Thieves."*


The first few times I listened to Thick As Thieves, the general thought I got was that it was a commentary on religious tyranny and abuse of moral power. And then I would listen to the song again and think, "Or maybe not." This process kept repeating itself over and over again. "I've got it! It's about...or maybe not." "Now I'm sure of it! It's definitely about...nope."

Back to my fantasy interview. I should've asked a better question. I need to imagine myself being a better fake journalist. Maybe I could succeed in getting more information if I asked a less direct question about the song. Perhaps I might inquire as to what inspired the writing of the song, what thought process was taking place when it was being written? That surely would provide some more insight, right?

"I can remember that those words came to me so easily they almost seemed to be dictated by my subconscious. At the time, some of the phrases had no clear meaning to me; they were only combinations of sounds."**

At this point in the interview I'd start writing this sentence in my head: "Merchant is a tough nut to crack..."

Nah, just kidding. Actually, I like this last comment. I like it a lot. This last comment is what gives me the courage to tell you what I have to tell you about this week's song, something I think some of you may not want to hear. Are you ready? Brace yourselves.

I don't think Thick As Thieves is about anything. At least not anything specific. I think it is exactly what Natalie says it is in that last quote - phrases and sounds. And you know what? That's fine by me. Not everything in life has to have an explanation, especially not when it comes to art. Why is that painting beautiful? Why does that song make you cry? Why do you laugh at all the parts in that movie that no one else thinks is funny? Sometimes you can explain it. But sometimes you can't.

Thick As Thieves comes across exactly as what it apparently is, a stream of consciousness, a convergence of ideas and imagery. Natalie seems to be quite proud of the lyrics and I think she has every right to be. Over a decade after they were written, they still have us wondering.

Time for today's interesting song-related factoid: Thick As Thieves has a lyric about marching to Compostela. This refers to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This city's cathedral has been a destination of pilgrimage for many hundreds of years. (In an example of loving things without understanding why, I would like to say I love the word pilgrimage.) It is the belief of some that the Apostle James' remains are to be found at this location. No one has been able to verify this claim, but who really needs an excuse for a good pilgrimage? Over 100,000 pilgrims from all over the world travel to this location each year. When they complete the pilgrimage they are given something called a Compostela, a certificate of completion of their quest. Personally, if I was visiting Spain I'd rather see the Prado museum, but to each his own.

Before I sign off this week, I'd like to once again invite you to share your own thoughts on this week's song via the comments section or e-mail. I can only imagine the many interpretations you all must have for this song and I would love to hear them if you care to share. Also, to help perpetuate my unrealistic fantasy, I'd like to put this question out to all of you: What question would you have me ask Natalie in my interview?

Download an alternate, Natalie solo performance version of Thick As Thieves from Itunes - Thick As Thieves (2005 Version) - Retrospective 1990-2005

Click here to watch a video from Natalie's official site that I'm including primarily for the first 30 seconds, which actually pertain to this week's post. Highly entertaining.

*New York Times "Times Talks" - November 2010
**Liner notes to Retrospective


  1. This is my favorite Natalie Merchant song and therefore I also tried to find out what it was about. It was a bit disapointing that she explained in Retrospective not to know herself. Still a perfect song though ... :)

  2. I know we all crave an answer, but do you think maybe the mystery is part of what makes us love it so much? It's like when you watch a mystery show on TV and say, "I want all the answers!" and then as soon as you find out the answers you're bored.

  3. As you aluded to in your explanation, the song should just be accepted for what it is facially. I like to think of the song as an abstract painting like a Jackson Pollock drip painting. When he first did them everyone tried to put traditional interpretations to the paintings but they were just beautiful displays of shapes and colours. The colours and shape of the drips suggested moods and forces but there's no specific reference to any particular narration. The words to natalie's song serve as the paint. The score accentuates the power of the words, in essence giving the paint shape, but there is no specific narration - I swear I have not been smoking. Anyways, learning from your article that Natalie herself says the song has no meaning, the question I would like you to ask would be "how did she come to the decision to call the song Thick as Thieves."

  4. I hope Natalie comes out with more stuff, just so i can read your thoughts on her songs. I LOVE IT!!!

  5. Bernie - What a great analogy! Maybe you should be writing this blog? And that is indeed a good question. I will add to the list.

  6. Taylor - Aw shucks. Ain't you sweet.

  7. Hi, like your blog and concur with the thoughts on the inanity of journos. Just for accuracy line 16 should read "the heretic is beatified".

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for the correction. I hate spelling errors!

  8. It's also one of my favorite songs. In fact, it was scouring the internet for it's meaning that led me to this blog today.

    1. Hi Jason -

      I'm glad you found the blog. Hopefully it added a little something to your research on this fascinating song.

      - Annie

    2. took the words right out of my mouth. I sing this song with so much passion even having no clue what it's about. It's haunted me for what..for the better part of 15 years. It's kind of sad to know that it has no meaning though.

  9. Every time I watch true detective on hbo I'm constantly repeating in my head:
    Pilgrims march to Compostela
    Of visions of their saint in yellow

    1. I've never seen that show...what is it about the show that causes you to make that connection?