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Song Sources: The Language of Flowers

March 2, 2023

This is part of an ongoing series about our recordings. To read more in this series, click on the category “Song Sources: Stories behind the recordings.”

Throughout human history, people used to send coded messages to each other using flowers. In Victorian England, the practice was called the language of flowers, and it was common enough that there are books and, for the slightly less curious, a Wikipedia page dedicated to the history of it. The song doesn’t really have anything to do with sending coded messages, but the main character is a gardener who vaguely remembers, and recites, some of the symbolism associated with plants in their garden.

Floral Poetry and the Language of Flowers (1877)

The concept of this was someone tending a garden as the last person on earth. They’ve reached the age where they can’t properly take care of the plants anymore, and the garden is dying. They know they aren’t far behind. It’s largely serene but has a pretty big climax for ending with a bit of a whimper, kind of like the end of the world should.

Read more: Song Sources: The Language of Flowers


All my life I’ve been a gardener
This year the lilac won’t grow
And the rose is devouring the arbor
And the cypress trees will bow to see me go

Once I thought it’d be fire
Once I thought it’d be cold
But it turns out we just get tired
It turns out we just get old

Marigold to make the sour wine
My Bella Donna make me go to sleep
Keep Rosemary to remember me by
And baby’s breath to make my Mary weep

The first verse is simply scene setting. The line about the lilacs and roses gives a vague timeline as summer, since lilacs usually bloom in spring and they didn’t. This was somewhere near the Pacific northwest in my mind, which is the reason for the cypresses, in part because I thought it was less likely that someone would survive on their own in a typical 4-season area like where I live.

The chorus has an Eliot reference:

This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”

And to Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice

Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

I’ll side with Eliot on this one.

The second verse uses the actual language of flowers, though the symbols aren’t historic, except Rosemary for remembrance. Marigold is edible and has occasionally be used to flavor wine. Belladonna is poisonous, of course, and maybe that’s the narrator pondering if they want to choose their moment of expiration. The last line in the verse is a reference to the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” but I wanted some implication that the narrator might have had a family, and I think this was about as much as I could fit in a few words.

Music and Recording

There’s not a lot to mention about the music itself except to note that the song uses a highly unusual 12-bar 6/8 form where there are four lines of three bars. I did this to give a little more room to sing the lyrics (it would be very rushed without the pause of the extra bar on each line), but not so much room as four bars would have given.

The original 2013 February Album Writing Month version didn’t have the bridge with the crescendo in it, and I also did it in a lower key:

I added that a little later when I started making the original demo the next year (which Jen Parde played piano and sang on). The band and I worked out the dynamics and the hard stops in the verses while practicing with Chris Hamilton, so what you hear on the recording was a lived-in organic arrangement.

Chris Hamilton, Joe Scala, Rick Veader, and I recorded the bones of the track with a scratch vocal live in Chris Freeland’s studio back in 2016. I replaced the guitar parts and vocal later on of course, but if you listen really, really carefully you can still hear the original guitar part from that session bleeding into the drum overheads in certain parts. Early on I had the idea to have a cello playing the instrumental, but when I set to work arranging the song I decided what I really wanted was something more dramatic.

So the “tiny orchestra” was born. It’s a good dozen guitar tracks, a midi harp, and synthesized strings and horns. It was increasingly less “tiny” the more I got into it, and ended up being 45 instruments.

Some friends told me that they were convinced the horns weren’t real until the “BLAT” at the end of the bridge. So without further ado, here is one of the most fiddly things I did for the record, a midi trumpet squeal:

That’s all it was. It took a long time to find it and make it sound right, though.

There’s also a very, very nasty synth part on the last chorus. We ended up taming it volume wise on the finished product but it’s a low tearing, rumbling sound underneath everything else. Chris Freeland also had the good insight to use some more piano slams for the percussion at the end — we’re just mashing the bass end of the piano on the accents.

It took a while to get the vocal timbre, and many takes over the course of several days, in part because it tears my voice up, but I need to tear it up a little to get there. So the first several takes each session weren’t any good, and eventually things started to hurt and I’d have to stop. Joe said later that he had to change his normal vocal part but I think he did a good job on the harmonies. I did always think it was strange that I insisted on harmonies in a song about a person all alone, but I’m addicted to harmonies.

Oh, and the horn fanfare in the bridge? Joe actually sang those. I converted his voice to midi.

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