They've come to find you odalisque
As the light dies horribly
On a fire escape you walk
All rare and resolved to drop

And when they find you odalisque
They will rend you terribly
Stitch from stitch til all
Your linen and limbs will fall

Lazy lady had a baby girl
And a sweet sound it made
Raised on paradise, peanut shells and dirt
In the railroad cul-de-sac

And what do we with ten baby shoes
A kit bag full of marbles
And a broken billiard cue? what do we do?

Fifteen stitches will mend those britches right
And then rip them down again
Sapling switches will rend those rags alright
What a sweet sound it makes

And what do we do with ten dirty Jews
A thirty-ought full of rock salt
And a warm afternoon? what do we do?

Lay your belly under mine
You're naked under me, under me
Such a filthy dimming shine
The way you kick and scream, kick and scream

And what do we do with ten baby shoes
A kit bag full of marbles
And a broken billiard cue?
What do we do?

Lazy lady had a baby girl, and a sweet sound it made

Lyrics submitted by gyroscope, edited by ethan11118

Odalisque Lyrics as written by Colin Meloy

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

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Odalisque song meanings
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  • +2
    My InterpretationI'm not really sure what this song is about, but I think I'll still attempt some kind of close-reading analysis which someone else can maybe build off of.

    Title: Odalisque. According to Wikipedia, an odalisque was a female slave who was an assistant or apprentice to the concubines or wives in an Ottoman harem, below the status of a concubine, but who might eventually become one herself.

    First verse: Someone is looking for or coming after the main character (mc), presumably a girl or woman due to the use of "odalisque". Already the music and diction set a gloomy and ominous tone. "The light dies horribly" suggests evening, the end of something (childhood?). The red sky of evening may also suggest violence. "On a fire escape you walk / All rare resolved to drop" suggests an urban setting, thoughts of suicide. The "resolve" to drop suggests determination rather than desperation; perhaps suicide is the best alternative to a bad life (present or future).

    Second verse: The lines "When they find you, Odalisque / They will rend you terribly" suggest violence. The next lines compare the mc to a doll with "linen limbs" and "stitch[es]". I'm starting to think this could be a reference to some kind of sexual act which is tearing apart the relatively sheltered childhood (hence the doll references) of the mc, rather than a person actually being physically torn apart.

    Third verse: Describing a lazy lady with a baby girl. I suspect the girl is the mc and the lady is her mother. More suggestions of an urban poverty setting: "Raised on pradies, peanut shells and dirt / In a railroad cul-de-sac". I don't know what pradies are, but the general feeling is of rather ugly surroundings and a neglectful upbringing. My interpretation is that the mother is someone who is very poor and has a series of male sexual partners, out of necessity or simply the inability to resist. This connects to the mc's title of "odalisque", which would make the mother a concubine or part of the harem.

    Fourth verse: Chorus-like feel, suggesting that it is important to the overall meaning of the song. The three objects mentioned: "ten baby shoes", "a kit bag full of marbles", and "a broken billiard cue" suggest remnants of childhood. (The term 'kit bag' means something similar to 'knapsack'.) Why so many baby shoes? I don't know. Again, this might suggest a separation from earlier days of innocence.

    Fifth verse: Descriptions of repeatedly torn and mended clothes, corporal punishment. Again, the general tone suggests poverty to me as well as possibly childhood adventures - tearing your clothes, getting into trouble. There's a relatively happy tone ("What a sweet sound it makes"), perhaps signifying that these are fond memories of a relatively carefree past.

    Sixth verse: "A thirty-aught full of rock salt" refers to a certain kind of shotgun with rock salt shells. From Wikipedia: "Rock salt shells are hand loaded with rock salt, replacing the standard lead or steel shot. [...] The brittle salt was unlikely to cause serious injury at long ranges, but would cause painful stinging injuries and served as a warning." The way the elements in that phrase have been positioned: "And what do we do with ten dirty Jews / A thirty-aught full of rock salt and a warm afternoon?" suggests some kind of (non-lethal) harassment of Jewish people as some kind of diversion. I'm not at all sure how this fits into the rest of the song. Is the mc Jewish? How does this event connect to the rest of the song? Perhaps it is just there to set the tone of cruelty towards others. Also, if the mc is in fact Jewish, this harassment could be the prelude to the sexual violence of the following verse.

    Seventh verse: Extremely dark, harsh tone. Suggests rape or forced sex: "You're naked under me, under me". Again, the prostitute/odalisque connection fits here, as well as the death of childhood. The lines "Such a filthy dimming shine / The way you kick and scream, kick and scream" perhaps indicate the weakening resistance. The word "filthy" suggests extreme poverty and/or something valuable concealed beneath an ugly exterior, while "dimming" suggests that it is fading or dying away. This valuable thing, as I interpret it, is the innocence of childhood and virginity, as well as self-respect and a desire for self-preservation, which motivate the mc to "kick and scream" in this situation. Sadly, this "shine" is dimming as a result of the harsh reality which is shown in the rest of the song. With this in mind, perhaps the first two verses represent the conclusion of the story: unable to escape this life, the mc commits suicide.

    Eighth verse: A repetition of the fourth verse. Perhaps another reminder of the mc's vanished childhood

    Ninth verse: Repetition of the first half of the third verse. Again, a last memory of childhood.

    One more note: Verses with musical similarity are probably connected. The first two verses are one idea: the mc's present situation. The third, fifth, and ninth verse are descriptions of the mc's childhood. The fourth and eight verses contrast with the sixth: the former describe the left-behind remnants of childhood, while the latter has this puzzling suggestion of anti-Semitic violence. This might be intentional contrast of the mc's peaceful childhood and strife-filled adulthood. The climactic seventh verse stands on its own, perhaps representing the turning point in the mc's life and a kind of dark coming-of-age event.

    I was pretty much coming up with this all as I went through the song line by line, so now that I have finished I have some more insight into what the song is about. The story seems to be about the death of childhood/innocence, as represented with a story about a girl who grows up in urban poverty, inherits a life of sexual exploitation once she comes of age, and ultimately commits suicide to escape her grim surroundings.
    treanton July 09, 2010   Link
  • +1
    General CommentSorry if I'm nitpicking, but odalisque were not concubines, they were slaves to the Sultan's wives and concubines. Who were sewn into bags and drowned if they misbehaved (or so I've heard).
    Woozakon November 21, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think that her mother, who probably got pregnant by accident and out of wedlock, and who was poor and didn't make much effort to raise her well, sold her into slavery as a child. She was an Odalisque, not by her own choice, thus the reason why she ran away.
    The references to rape and beating are probably referring to what will happen to her when the speaker catches her.
    rainstormsongon December 08, 2006   Link
  • +1
    General Comment"lines like "what do we do with ten dirty Jews a thirty-ought full of rock salt and a warm afternoon?" don't really have anything to do with prostitution though.

    more like nazism
    which doesn't have much to do with the subject"

    yeah, 'cause no one killed Jews before the Nazis. I'm with knowthyself, this story/song maybe set in the ottoman empire. So the hoodlums involved happen to be Jewish, and of a nasty sort, in a nation that was less than kind to dirty criminal types.
    AaronTrieson October 08, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General Comment"...the theme of prostitution from 'A Cautionary Song' carries on into 'Odalisque'. The difference being the heroine of the former song committed herself to the act, while Odalisque's situation is involuntary. An odalisque is literally a Turkish sultan’s concubine, and the Odalisque in the song is not far removed from the actual definition. Abandoned, orphaned, or runaway, it's not made clear- Odalisque walks the desolate fire escape as the sun sets. Reference is made to a 'they' that are searching for her. What their intentions are is not truly revealed until the end, but is hinted at in the lines 'they will rend you terribly...'til all your linen limbs will fall.' The child's upbringing, and I use that term loosely, is that of a 'lazy lady' (like the 'wastrel mesallied' of 'Leslie Anne Levine'?) who is deject, poverty-ridden and possibly a prostitute herself- hence the judgment of 'lazy'. 'What do we do with ten baby shoes, a kit bag full of marbles and a broken billiard cue?' cries the mother, either flummoxed as to what to do with her child’s old playthings, or it's a reference to her ineptitude as a mother. The phrase 'What do we do?' is first heard here and its accompanied feeling of utter confusion and dismay (exhibited most blatantly in 'Odalisque') is a recurring motif of the album.…
    knowthyselfon July 05, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commentsorry, there was more...

    "...tacit references are made to the child's sexual abuse: 'Fifteen stitches will mend those britches right and then rip them down again.' The following line shows the mother continuing to bemoan her abjection, revealing some anti-Semitism in the process: 'And what do we do with ten dirty Jews, a thirty-ought full of rock salt and a warm afternoon?' The most explicit allusion to Odalisque's abuse is manifested in the last carnal lines which are sung to the throbbing pulse of the guitar: 'Lay you belly under mine/Naked under me/Such a filthy dimming shine/The way you kick and scream.' The song ends with the narrator pressing the subject of Odalisque's origin again, leaving us with the impression that the narrator feels Odalisque's fate is not that of her own, but of the remiss wench who birthed her."
    knowthyselfon July 05, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General Commentthis is my absolute favorite from these guys, i'm surprised nobody else has commented. When the bass and organ get going it gets me all worked up.
    floydeyeon May 29, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentOdalisque is also the title/name of a painting of a beautiful young woman by Delacroix, and he was quite fond of death and sex. I was so pleased to discover this song as I love the painting and this seems to fit it perfectly.
    Evil Herbivoreon October 22, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentYeah, we were looking at slides in my art history class, and up came Ingres' "La Grand Odalisque." Now I can't listen to the song without picturing the painting, or look at the painting without hearing the song.
    walkintothecon December 10, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General Commentlines like "what do we do with ten dirty jews a thirty-ought full of rock salt and a warm afternoon?" don't really have anything to do with prostitution though.

    more like nazism
    which doesn't have much to do with the subject
    fourfourtimeon March 02, 2006   Link

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