“Dorothy moves to click her ruby shoes, right in tune with Dark Side of the Moon”
So begins the understated intro of the song that is arguably this Boston’s band’s best work. The line takes its cue from a quirky coincidence reportedly first noticed by stoners that the 1973 Pink Floyd album fits as an alternate soundtrack to the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. That opening line sets a precedent both lyrically and musically for a lazy malaise that eventually drifts into a euphoric dream, with reality playing the ironic part of siren, calling from just down the stairs.
Since their debut album Parachute in 1995, Guster has steadily built a devoted following while continuing to expand its sonic frontiers. 1999 saw the release of their most mainstream album to date, Lost and Gone Forever, its opening track “What You Wish For” could be heard blaring out of dorm rooms across the U.S. Traditionally an acoustic band, with “Thunder God” Brian Rosenworcel banging out all the percussion by hand without a drumstick in sight, the band took a “new direction” with 2003’s “Keep it Together”. Featuring a more electric production and instrumentation, this feels like their first “full” record, though some early fan purists were not happy with the change.
“Come Downstairs” is track 9. The song consists of two distinct movements. The opening is slow and deliberate, similar to its protagonist, up in his room watching MTV with the volume down, asking “where do I belong”. It evokes the stale air and deliberate movements of someone stuck in the same place. In fact, the song almost drags too much at the beginning, lulling the listener into a subdued apathy that makes the second movement all the more surprising and powerful. The music between movements sounds like leads and strums on a reverb-soaked guitar backed with slow pounds on a piano. Then a sparsely-backed Adam Gardner proclaims the chorus’s 180 degree turn for the first time, before finally, almost all instruments fade out just after Gardner’s last words are almost whispered, “listen as the watch unwinds…” This starts movement two in earnest as the bass line picks up a quicker beat that is soon followed by the rest of the sounds. Finally Gardner’s high-pitched wordless vocals kick in with an ethereal presence that provides the strongest hook of the song. This second movement continues to build momentum, stating the narrators admission he’s been “half asleep” but “never doing that again” which reinforces lyrically the musical contrast of act 2 to the first. Once the chorus appears, what was once a wordless wail is given lyrics, as the voice of the outside world calling from a “yellow road, to come downstairs and say hello”. This is the climax of the song, both lyrically and musically as the tempo remains steady until the fadeout.
While the jury’s still out, boredom and apathy seem to be the stigma attached to Gens X and Y since the ’90, to some degree or another. It’s not hard to find depictions of this generation looking like overfed, overdrugged, whiners who were handed down little of their parents’ idealism or our grandparents’ tenacity. Thus, the image of the loner stoner holed up in his upstairs room sounds immediately familiar to many. The band manipulates both sound and lyric to paint that picture in the first act, which is the easy part. What makes this song great, is how they use the second movement as an intervention. It’s like music from some extra-earthly source wills itself into the kid’s brain and calls him “downstairs” to the real world, giving him the realization that he’s been “half asleep”. The lasting impression is encouragement. “Don’t be shy, just say hello”.
It’s rare to find a song that speaks such a unified message with what it says to how it sounds, never beating us over the head with it. So if you find yourself holed up in a den of despair like the song’s subject, make “Come Downstairs” your personal Tony Robbins and blare that second act through some hi-fi headphones until you’re ready to wake up and “say hello” again.Preview 'Come Downstairs and Say Hello'