Think I'm stranded but I don't know where
I got this diamond that don't know how to shine
In the sun where these dark winds wail
And these children leave their rulers behind
As we cross ten leagues from a rubicon
With matchsticks for my bones
If we can learn how to freeze ourselves alive
We could learn to leave these burdens to burn
Cast out these creatures of woe
Who shatter themselves
Fighting a fire with your bare hands
Now my journey takes me further south
I want to hear what the blind men sing
With their fossils and their gypsy bones
I'll stand beside myself so I'm not alone
How can I make new again what rusts every time it rains?
And the rain, it comes and floods our lungs
We're just orphans in a tidal wave's wake
If I wake up and see my maker coming
With all of his crimson and his iron desire
We'll drag the streets with baggage
Of longing to be loved or destroyed
From a void to a grain of sand in your hand
"Orphans" is the first track on Modern Guilt. This is appropriate, because Beck has said that it was the first song he recorded with Danger Mouse. It really pointed the way to the rest of the sessions. Beck explained, "I was working on my record last year, and then I called [Danger Mouse] and said 'let's do a song' and he was really busy and he said he didn't have time. But we did one song and the song that came out was "Orphans" - the first song on the record. We liked the way it came out. So, he said 'if I'm going to work on a record with you it's not going to be one song, it's going to be a whole record."
"Orphans" is one of two songs on the album with Cat Power singing, the other being "Walls." Beck said when he did the song, he knew he wanted some other voices on there. The harmonies are amazing. Beck talked about working with Cat Power: "We brought her in, and she only had 45 minutes, but she's one of those singers who just opens her mouth and there's no work, no affectation."
The album track is a beautiful recording, Beck's laidback and thoughtful melody decorated with a lot of percussion, finger-picked guitar, and back-up vocals. Also, Beck plays the flute on this song! Modern Guilt is full of a lot of slightly twisted takes on songwriting too, and "Orphans" is a good example. Here, in between two verses, there somewhat unusually is two different choruses (one is shorter, the melodies different). Then the song ends on a fairly long instrumental coda.
Beck also included a live-in-the-studio "acoustic" version of this song (and the entire album) on beck.com. "Orphans" does not sound drastically different, at its core it is an acoustic song anyway. It lacks all the detail of the album, but his live touring band ease right into playing the album acoustically (and slightly jazzy). Brian LeBarton drums, for some reason, as Joey Waronker (usually the drummer) adds tiny flute touches. Jessica Dobson plays guitar and sings Cat Power's harmonies. They don't end the song on quite as long an outro, but the arrangement is basically identical.
"Orphans" is certainly one of the most poetic songs Beck has written. Beck himself has expressed varied views of the song. In one interview with the LA Times, he said that he himself was "trying to figure out what the song was about." In the same interview he did explain what it is he figured out. And in another radio interview, he talked a lot about how the song began.
I'll jump way back first though. Back in 2005 or 2006, Beck did a joint interview with his brother-in-law Giovanni Ribisi in Elle magazine. One exchange went like this:
ELLE: On what occasions do you cry?
BECK: Commercials. No, I cried watching this documentary about these Sudanese orphans who get shipped off to America and they don't have parents and one guy talked about how he hadn't seen his parents since he was a little boy. Maybe it's being a father, but that definitely hit me.
After the release of Modern Guilt a few years later, Beck again referred to the same movie. This time he specifically indicated that it inspired the song, "Orphans."
I'll write the music first, then let the music tell me what it's about. But often I'll get a title or concept. I watched a documentary some years ago about these orphans in Sudan and their whole story, it blew me off my feet. This thing hit me pretty hard.
So I had this idea of these orphans...they lost their families in a civil war, holy war in Sudan. And all the children had fled. I was really taken with that story.
Of course, as you can probably tell, the song is not specifically about Sudan. Beck is a much more metaphorical writer than that. He continued:
This whole idea of these orphans, it is a metaphor and it is appropriate. Right now, in this country, just watching what is going on over these years, there's a certain amount of us who don't feel a part of it, who can't help but feel alienated. You love your country, but... there is a certain amount of us who have been orphaned from the powers-of-be, the status quo, the center, or whatever you call it. There's a lot of us who feel like we're wandering or we're not quite at home anymore.
Delving into this feeling that Beck witnessed in the documentary turned up a mysterious, powerful song. The dislocation or disconnection felt by orphans is explored explicitly in the first verse: Think I'm stranded but I don't know where / I got this diamond that don't know how to shine / In the sun where the dark winds wail / And these children leave their rulers behind. Beautiful lines! Nothing is working right quite like it should. The sun is out but it's dark, diamonds don't shine, the children don't have what they need (or is it, 'rulers' as in 'leaders'?).
The next lines ("as we cross ten leagues from a rubicon / with matchsticks for my bones") take it further. "Crossing the Rubicon" is an idiom, meaning "crossing the point of no return." (The Rubicon is an ancient river in Europe.) Beck tweaks the idiom, as is his tendency when songwriting, introducing more despair--a league is usually the distance walked in one hour. Combining leagues and rubicons, he is long long past the point of no return now.
However far into strandedness Beck takes the song though, he continues to sing of the struggle to connect. The next lines hint at learning, leaving burdens behind, casting out woe, fighting the fires. Orphans, clearly, must learn to survive in spite of their disconnect. Beck explained in the interviews:
So I was just trying to sum up that feeling--the feeling of if it were to all end right now, would it really matter? Trying to find a home. That's why people came to this country in the first place. It's a strange thing when you become a stranger in your home, and then you're an orphan again. Hopefully the pendulum swings, and when it does, I'm gonna hang on to it.
He repeated the pendulum/country metaphor another time as well:
"And in a way I was thinking how there's a large segment of this country -- we're part of this country, we're taxpayers, we grew up here, the country is in our blood. But certain things have veered so off course, or in a direction that people can't identify with or don't agree with, you can't help but feeling slightly orphaned in your own country.
"I'm very curious to see where it's going," he continued. "If that pendulum swings I'm going to be hanging on to it. I'm going to ride it all the way to the other side. I'm hoping that's what happens."
Hanging on the pendulum is exactly what I get out of this song. You may be disconnected, trying to find your home, but in time you will swing back to something more comfortable. After fighting with the "baggage of longing to be loved or destroyed," the pendulum will swing back, from a void to a grain of sand in your hand. And all you need is the tiniest grain of hope to keep going.
Beck's played this live a fair amount on the Modern Guilt tours, but surprisingly not as often as I would have expected.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour
Most versions of "Orphans" sound pretty similar to the record, maybe slightly sped up, a little less dusty. A few times Beck used an acoustic guitar, but most shows, he was on electric.
November 18, 2008 KCRW version
On KCRW, Beck played "Orphans" on his acoustic guitar. Jessica Dobson played piano, and Bram Inscore added stand-up bass. The piano is a beautiful touch, as is their harmonies. GORGEOUS. Watch it:
"Orphans" has not shown up in a setlist since the final Modern Guilt leg in Japan.
I've mentioned a few times above the documentary about Sudanese orphans. This really was something that inspired Beck--not only did he mention it in those two interviews that I've heard, but here as well. In that link, Beck was asked to list his five guilty pleasures, but in a misunderstanding, he listed his five favorite things. #1 was the documentary, and this is what he said:
1. 'Lost Boys of Sudan,' a documentary by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk: This is a documentary that I saw about four or five years ago. It played on television and it was just something that struck me. I'm not sure why. There's something compelling about [it]. Obviously there's this heartbreaking story of these kids who are caught in the middle of a political upheaval, grew up in these refugee camps and were sponsored to go to America and be integrated to the American educational system. The thing that I was struck by is the way these boys, who had grown up together, really took care of each other. It's interesting to see them coming into an American culture, which is just completely alien to them. We grew up in it so we're used to it, but at the root of who we are as human beings -- it's probably pretty alien to us. It kind of shows you that we're all strangers in this whole modern landscape.