Certain Songs #966: The Long Winters – “The Commander Thinks Aloud”

Album: Ultimatum EP
Year: 2005

On the short list of the Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, SPACE! Division, “The Commander Thinks Aloud” is a spiritual & musical sequel to songs like “Space Oddity” and “Rocket Man” but has the extra added frisson-inducing fact of being based upon a real life event: the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia upon reentry in 2003.

It’s one of those songs to which you can listen endlessly and find something new and amazing each and every time.

At first it’s just John Roderick playing some stately “Let it Be” piano, while slipping into the mindset of Columbia’s commander — Rick D. Husband was his name — marveling at the planet below and ruminating upon his utterly unique circumstances. He was coming home from fucking outer space!

Boys and girls in cars
Dogs and birds on lawns
From here I can touch the sun
Yay!
Yay!

Put your jackets on
I feel we’re being born
The tropic of Capricorn is below
Yay!
Yay!

At some point during the first verse, Matt Chamberlain’s drums show up. On the Song Exploder podcast about “The Commander Thinks Aloud”, Roderick explains how Chamberlain laid down five successive drum parts — boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and asked that each one be panned in a different place in the speakers.

The result is a glorious skyrocket clattering of drums throughout, adding to the mounting tension as things on the Columbia begin to go south.

We stall above the pole
Still your face is young
As we feel our weight return
Yay!
Yay!

A trail of shooting stars
The horses call the storm
Because the air contains the charge
Yay!
Yay!

And indeed, Chamberlain’s drums actually sound like a trail of shooting stars, and various other instruments — mostly strings and keyboards of every shape and stripe — are randomly beeping and ringing and getting ever more out of control. If they could only just hang on, they could make it home.

The radio is on
And Houston knows the score
Can you feel it we’re almost home
Yay!
Yay!
Yay!
Yay!

But of course they can’t, and the chaos builds and builds, until with a swirl of strings the whole song stops, except for the ever-present piano and the Commander, continuing to report on what he sees in what is the equivalent of one of those movie or TV scenes that you know is full of noise and confusion, but just for a moment, visualized in near silence:

The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up
The crew compartment’s breaking up

Halfway through, the full sound kicks back in, and the Columbia goes down in a slow-motion psychedelic melange of echoing drums, spacey keyboards, malfunctioning synths and separating fireballs, and the Commander has his final thoughts:

This is all I wanted to bring home
(The crew compartment’s breaking up)
This is all I wanted to bring home
(The crew compartment’s breaking up)
This is all I wanted to bring home
(The crew compartment’s breaking up)
This is all I wanted to bring home to you

And with that, the Space Shuttle Columbia slowly falls to the Earth that it had previously conquered so many times.

“The Commander Thinks Aloud” is utterly heartbreaking, and yet, because Roderick keeps it positive and observational, it’s also a monument to the utterly amazing fact that we are putting people into outer space in the first place.

“The Commander Thinks Aloud”

“The Commander Thinks Aloud” performed solo by John Roderick 7/23/2015

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