“Shoulders” by The Arcadian Wild begins with Lincoln Mick telling us a story.
We took off in my plane.
Most of what I have to say about this song is praise for how well-built its story is, so you had better listen to it before I give it away:
In the first verse, rhyme unites “wide eyes” with “sunrise” to create the image of someone’s dazzled face, looking east. Then the verse takes on the rhythm of a fable, or a joke. Its punchline: “You asked me when I learned to fly / I replied, ‘You were watching the whole time.'”
Now we (and the passenger) know that there’s more miracle here than a new day’s beauty and a machine’s defiance of gravity. This pilot doesn’t know how to fly! But he’s doing it anyway.
The next verse tells us the dawn flight was a story within a story: “You woke up from that dream.” By revealing that the story of the flight is a dream, the songwriter signals that it is a metaphor, the mind’s way of talking about something for which there are no words. This is a cue to the listener to through the image of the miraculous flight to the wordless thing it stands for.
My theory is that in this song, flight is a metaphor for love. The lyrics back me up: when the dreamer tells the singer about the dream, the singer says, “It made me love you a little more.” Neither singer nor dreamer tries to decode the dream. They leave that to us.
Love and flight are each both exillerating and terrifying. Each looks impossible from the ground. A plane is almost as heavy as a heart can be. But there it goes, “into the sunrise,” steady even in untrained hands.
The song’s instrumental arrangement shares with the listener the feeling of soaring wonder and trusting steadiness that the characters experience. As Mick begins to sing, it’s just him and his octave mandolin.
The song at this point feels small and intimate; the listener sits beside the singer in the plane.
When Mick mentions the sunrise, Isaac Horn’s guitar joins in and colors the horizon. After the lyric punchline, all the instruments drop out, and the song is suspended for a moment in disbelief. Then they return, the long tones Bailey Warren’s fiddle like a quiet breath of awe from the passenger.
Warren’s fiddle continues to act as the dreamer’s wordless voice. Mick sings that the dreamer wakes up, “Wondering what it all meant,” and Warren adds a quizzical fill as punctuation to his phrase. As Mick sings, “You told me what you saw the night before,” Warren’s fiddle plays a countermelody, as if her instrument is retelling the dream.
Before I go, let me praise Eli Broxham’s bass, the heartbeat of this song. Even when all he’s playing is a single note on the downbeat, that note’s warmth lands like a reassuring hand. When the music pauses and the listener wonders “Are you still with me?” it’s the bass that answers, “Yes.”
The instrumental storytelling in this song is not only detailed and thoughtful, it’s generous. The Arcadian Wild invites their listener into the song. We’re spoken for by the fiddle, held by the bass, riding in a bright plane made of guitar and mandolin.