Birds chirp somewhere in the distance, and if sunshine were audible, it would sound a lot like these guitars.
A complete breakdown is less than three minutes away.
And that’s the beauty of great songwriting.
“Archie, Marry Me,” by Canadian band Alvvays, begins with complete understanding: “You’ve expressed explicitly/your contempt for matrimony/You’ve student loans to pay/you will not risk the alimony. We spend our days locked in a room pretend inside a bubble/and in the nighttime we go out and scour the streets for trouble.”
I get it, the singer implies. Marriage is a commitment. It comes with risks. We have a good thing going here, so I’m perfectly happy to leave things as is, and keep having fun.
But when the chorus hits, she drops an alternate proposition: “Hey, hey, marry me, Archie.”
This isn’t a duet. Archie is never heard, his side of the conversation left largely to the imagination. Where the singer begins by explaining how much she understands and agrees with his opposition to making things official, song’s tension lies within her increasing inability to accept it.
Where verse one is her taking the nuanced approached, the second one sees her proposing whimsy: Why don’t we go on a trip? Just you and me and a boat, it’ll be a lot of fun. We could even elope, maybe?
Same chorus. Same plea, rebuffed.
A brief guitar solo, a wind-up for one last pitch.
Third attempt, the shortest verse yet: Peer pressure, shaming. “Too late to go out/too young to stay in/they’re talking about/us living in sin.”
Denied once more, she breaks down entirely, returning to the pleading chorus once more, but spelling his name at the end. “A-R-C-H-I-Eeee.” In three minutes, her vocabulary has reverted from complex words to spelling out a name, as though she’s reverted from a twentysomething to a kindergartener, all due to Archie’s rejection. The song uses its structure to convey her breakdown as much as its words.
Some time ago, I remember expressing to someone that one sign of a great song was when two different artists could perform distinct versions of it that were both moving. The example I used at the time was U2’s “One,” which had been subjected to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings treatment. Granted, Cash had discovered quite a knack for spinning others’ songs in his particular way—see “Hurt”—but “One” qualified as well. Both recordings are full of passion, pain, and nuance: At the right volume, you can hear Bono’s voice on the verge of cracking several times, the kind of audible sincerity lacking from more recent work.
The first time I heard “Archie, Marry Me,” it wasn’t by Alvvays. 1 Ben Gibbard played a benefit show at the Neptune Theater last November, and when he chose to cover “Archie, Marry Me,” armed with only a piano, the crowd’s awe was audible, even after he’d introduced it as “my favorite song of the year.” I can’t speak to how many people there were familiar with the song already, but my concert buddy and I looked at each other as though we’d just discovered the Holy Grail, or at the very least, a delicious new kind of cookie.
That night, at home, I Googled what I could remember of the song, and for the next two days, it was basically the only song my ears were willing to acknowledge the existence of. Two weeks later, Alvvays played at Barboza, and when I ran into Gibbard a few weeks after that, I sincerely thanked him. Maybe it’s a weird thing to do, to thank one of your favorite musicians for exposing you to another band.
But I’ll take weird over desperate any day.