The most famous track by the band Defeater is titled “I Don’t Mind.” To most listeners, it’s a soft, pretty song about a man’s relationship with his wife. The first time I’d ever heard it, that’s all it was to me; but fortunately, it got me interested in the band’s other material.
I soon learned how much more there was to “I Don’t Mind” and to every other Defeater song, for that matter. More than that, I was exposed to a new approach to music as a means of storytelling. At the conclusion of the band’s discography, I found myself wishing that this approach was the prevailing trend in music.
Coheed and Cambria, a progressive rock band, had first introduced me to the idea of using music as a mode of telling a narrative. Its frontman, Claudio Sanchez, authored a science-fiction story titled “The Amory Wars,” which serves as the source of lyrical content for all of their songs.
I thought that was awesome, but I also found it rather inaccessible. I wasn’t interested in the band’s music enough to purchase a comic book or novel detailing the story.
Defeater takes a simpler approach. The entirety of its narrative is told through their lyrics. Its 2009 album, “Travels,” begins the story from the perspective of the youngest brother in a broken American family trying to stay together after World War II. The unnamed boy and his brother struggle to live with an addict mother and the drunken, war-torn father who beats her. “Everything Went Quiet” introduces the motif of train-tracks seen throughout the story by describing the brothers’ game of chicken with a locomotive — whoever jumps first loses.
At age 17, the youngest brother flees from town after killing the father in a fit of rage at his mistreatment of their mother. The eldest brother swears revenge, because he viewed his father with admiration. “Travels” is primarily about the youngest brother’s time away from home after murdering his father, and the events bringing him to return and face his brother’s wrath.
“Empty Days and Sleepless Nights” was released in 2011, and this time, Defeater continues the story from the point of view of the eldest brother. He takes care of his drug-addled mother, mourns his father and restlessly awaits the return of his brother so that he may exact revenge. While spending his nights at the Copper Coin, a local bar, he meets a girl and makes her his wife, which is the topic of “I Don’t Mind.”
By following the narrative from the beginning, I understand the eldest brother’s feelings of relief at having found a good thing in such a rough life. In the song “White Knuckles,” I feel the anger he feels towards a bookie who pesters him about his late father’s debt and eyes his wife desirously. I feel the regret he feels after beating up the bookie, who in turn comes to the eldest brother’s home to kill the wife.
Defeater will even use its instruments to symbolize parts of the story. “White Oak Doors,” the climactic song of the whole discography, features a snare that steadily increases in volume to imitate the coming of the train. All these years later, when the youngest comes back to town to face the eldest, the brothers have a final game of chicken. The eldest holds a gun to the youngest to ensure he doesn’t run away, but the youngest slips out and gets the eldest held down on the tracks. The lyrics are a dialogue between the two, with the snare increasing every measure. Eventually, the train hits them at the loudest volume of the snare, and the song concludes with 20 seconds of silence.
That blew me away. Who knew a band’s body of work could be comprised of an exposition, a rising action, a climax, a falling action and a resolution?
Defeater added a whole new layer to their story with its 2013 album, “Letters Home,” which detailed the father’s upbringing, experiences in the war, loss of his own brother (another theme) and regret at his treatment of his wife. It helped me understand the older brother’s admiration of his father and brought clarity to his words from the previous album
“While my old man was a bastard, I admired and loved him / And us two kids, we were born into a family, not a fortune, no.”
Like any good book, these songs drag you in and make you feel connected to the characters. This music has layers of complexity and emotion that I’ve never seen another artist try to take on.
Defeater has convinced me that storytelling though music is not a niche to fill — it’s the way music should be done.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurphJamin
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