Dead Melodies
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

Versions:
  1. Dead Melodies (2:34)
    Available on Mutations.
    Credits
    Justin Meldal-Johnsen: Bass (Upright), Vocals (Background)
    John Sorensen: Engineer
    Nigel Godrich: Engineer, Mix, Producer
    Beck Hansen: Guitar (Acoustic), Producer, Vocals
    Smokey Hormel: Guitar (Acoustic), Vocals (Background)
    Roger Joseph Manning Jr.: keyboards
    Joey Waronker: Percussion
 
Lyrics:
Dead Melodies [Version (a)]:

Where will you go when this day is over?
A gambler's purse lays on the road straight to your door
The snakes have gone crazy tonight
Winding their way out of sight

A laugh, a joke, a sentiment wasted
Seasons of strangers that come and go
Doldrums are pounding, cheapskates are clowning this town
Who could disown themselves now?

Engineer, slow down this old train
Cinders and chaff laugh at the moon
Night birds will cackle, rotting like apples on trees
Sending their dead melodies to me
 
The Song:

Like most of the songs on Mutations, "Dead Melodies" was around for a few years before being recorded. (Beck.com says it was writ in 1995, which matches when it first showed up on stage.) The recording for the album is very well done and expands on the basic tune, turning Beck's folk song into a fuller, more radiant track. The music has a slight carnival atmosphere, which fits the parade of images Beck uses in his lyrics.

"Where will you go when this day is over?" is one of Beck's best opening lines. It is sort of left as an open-ended question, but it still immediately pulls you in. It sets the stage for the general weariness and calm-after-the-storm feel of the rest of the song. The day is over. A gambler's winnings have been lost/spent. The snakes are out of sight, troubles forgotten. Specifics of what happened prior are missing, but not necessary. The first verse establishes that this song takes place afterwards.

A bit of reflection fills the second verse. "Seasons of strangers" is an original and effective phrase. It's very unique, but reflects a lot of despair and unease. As does the next line, "doldrums are pounding," a subtle, yet clever pun on the similarity of "doldrums" and "drums." Word play is fun, but even better when it describes the emotion so effectively. "Doldrums" are "a period of depression or unhappy listlessness; a period of stagnation or slump." Basically that's the theme of the song in one great word.

The last verse jumps out of reflection into the present. Whatever is going on, it needs to stop: "Engineer, slow down this old train." Beck comes to this via the blues, where many a song has been written to the train driver. Usually, trains symbolize life, and here it's no different. Beck knows his blues. "Cinders and chaff laugh at the moon" is another clever and powerful phrase. Apparently "chaff" has many definitions, but Beck is playing on two of them: 1) the refuse of burned corn or straw (through which the train would be traveling) and 2) to make fun in a good-natured way (i.e., "laugh at the moon"). Dictionary.com says that chaff is also used as a "figure of abortive wickedness" in the Bible, and surely that fits the song perfectly, especially when placed next to "cinders" (i.e., ashes). Continuing these darker descriptions, Beck ends the song singing about cackling "night birds" rotting in trees, one last final image of despair.

This seems to me to be a song about being at the bottom, the lowest moment. Beck looks at it from a few angles: from within it looking forward, looking back at it, and looking at it directly.

As with a lot of Beck's best tracks, there is a depth to this song that may not reveal itself immediately. And it's gorgeous.
 
Live:

Played live 118 times:
Earliest known live version: November 11, 1995
Latest known live version: June 28, 2014

"Dead Melodies" was performed live a great many times over the years.

GAMBLER'S PURSE pre-Mutations early version

We know of four times Beck played "Dead Melodies" between 1995 and the end of 1997, a period which ended right before he recorded Mutations in early 1998.

On November 11 1995, just after having performed "Debra" for the first time, Beck debuted "Dead Melodies." The two songs could not be more different! This early version of "Dead Melodies" sounded bluesier than it would come to be known. The lyrics were also somewhat different at this early stage:
Sticks and bones, the skeleton moans alone
A gambler's purse jingles with flies
Straight to your door, snakes have gone crazy tonight
"Shooting their venom at the passers-by
Wondering, shining like a ringworm
Never been known to settle in the sand
Doldrums are pounding, cheapskates are clowning this town
Dragging their heels alone
Engineer, slow down my beer hand
Cinders and chaff laugh at the wall
Night birds who cackle, rotting like apples on trees
Sending their dead melodies to me


Those are some bizarre lines there! The opening line, "sticks and bones" recalls another new song he premiered that same night. "Shooting their venom at the passers-by" would be dropped from later versions of "Dead Melodies," having been used in "Derelict"!

A year later, on January 5, 1996, Beck was doing an acoustic show in Adelaide, Australia. He began "Dead Melodies," but stopped after the first verse, for some reason. It's identical to the first verse listed for November 11, 1995, except now he's found the song a new fourth line: "Winding their way out of sight" instead of "Shooting their venom at the passers-by."

"Dead Melodies" returned to Beck's attention at the now famous El Rey concert on November 19 1997. After the hectic Odelay tour, Beck & Friends did a couple of "country" concerts (Farm Aid, for instance). The show at the El Rey was a full set, and they dug deep, doing rarer songs and covers. "Dead Melodies" was among these.

A month later, Beck was back at the El Rey, opening for Bob Dylan. Trying to find songs to do, Beck dug out a bunch of old, unrecorded songs like "Sing It Again," "Cold Brains," "Nobody's Fault But My Own" and "Dead Melodies." Three months later, he would record all of them for Mutations. The lyrics at that point were still different from how they would end up on release:
Sticks and stones, the skeleton moans alone
A gambler's purse jingles with stones
Straight to your door, snakes have gone crazy tonight
Winding their way to your door
Wondering, shining like a ??
Never been known to settle in the sand
The doldrums are pounding, cheapskates are clowning this town
Who could disown themselves now?
Engineer, slow down my beer hand
Cinders and chaff laugh at the moon
Night birds who cackle, rotting like apples on trees
Sending their dead melodies to me
I for one am glad he changed the "shining like a ringworm" couplet (from 1995), as well as the "slow down my beer hand" line (here). The intriguing "skeleton moans alone" line is missed, though the meaning and effectiveness of the song has remained relatively unchanged over time.

CINDERS AND CHAFF version

Prior to Mutations' release, but after it was recorded, Beck played a very few shows in June, 1998. At one of them, at least, the band played "Dead Melodies" (June 11). The band was the same as who recorded the song, so they have a pretty good handle of it even as it was probably under-rehearsed.

After the release of Mutations, the song was played quite regularly. One of the first Mutations promotional appearences was on the radio show, Modern Rock Live. Beck used a makeshift band, for some reason, and thus some of the arrangements were unique. The version of "Dead Melodies" was actually led by what sounds to be a harpsichord, and is one of the prettiest performances of the song around. Similar to that was the show a few weeks later on KCRW, where the "Dead Melodies" was again led by keyboards. These full band arrangements continued into the Mutations tour of Japan and were all sublime. Listening to the version from April 19, 1999, in Tokyo, there is even a subtle string section addedódid a cello player join them on stage or something? Sounds like it at least. It's a gorgeous touch.

CHEAPSKATES solo version

In 2000-2002, however, "Dead Melodies" has been pretty much relegated to popping up in many of Beck's acoustic sets. Beck played the song quite a bit in this time. Beck did a lot of non-touring shows (benefits, radio, 5 shows with Neil Young, etc.) after the Vultures tour ended, and "Dead Melodies" was played at most of them.

CLOWNING THIS TOWN band version

The same time period saw a few band versions, which are well worth checking out. These were during the summer break of the Vultures tour. I especially like the one from September 30, 2000. Any performance done with a full band is usually pretty great.

SEASONS OF STRANGERS solo version 2002-2003

But just as I was starting to think the song was getting a bit overplayed, Beck and Smokey go on an acoustic tour, and unveil what I think is the best version of the song yet. It's a devastatingly beautiful arrangement, two intertwining acoustic guitars playing together. Check out the August 8, 2002 version for a good example of this.

There were a couple of solo versions in 2006, but basically since 2003, the song has been forgotten.

OUT OF SIGHT versions 2010-2013

Beck toured sporadically in this time period, but did fairly regularly perform "Dead Melodies," usually commenting on its age and "Baroque" nature.

DAY IS OVER version 2014

During the first leg of the Morning Phase tour in April 2014, Beck performed "Dead Melodies" with his band twice. He then did it just one other time on the later legs of the tour. With the Mutations band behind him, the song returns to the album: a folky song, but with a surprisingly deep and strong rhythm underneath. The three versions were all pretty, and quite faithful to the record.
 
Notes: