The Orpheum is one of those songs that gradually became one of the unwilling heroes of That Cold Year as the production took place. I finished writing it at the tail end of the songwriting cycle, just weeks before the band and I were set to start recording. The album was pretty much done, but I wanted to attempt one more song, something midway between catchy and strange, some morsel of compelling album filler that could hit some textures and flavors that weren’t present elsewhere on the record. In contrast, some of the other tunes, like “The Love That You’ve Lost” were designed with much more straightforward hooks: the closest I could come to mainstream in an album that contained some long, unusually structured, and complicated songs.
The Orpheum is all three of the aforementioned, which usually doesn’t make for the most appealing pop song. It’s a song that alternates between several time signatures, and contains about twenty-five chords, give or take a few. Yet my impression thus far is that it’s one of the most well-liked songs on the record. It’s difficult to know what will connect with people.
It tells the story of Pete, a movie addict who spends most of his waking hours inside the old Orpheum theatre downtown. He is star struck over his favorite actress, who remains unnamed throughout the song. However, we know that she is sultry and beautiful, and, even better: she always says the right things. Pete knows exactly what she’s going to do next, how she moves, what she wants. He has seen her a thousand times.
The lyrics chronicle his descent from benign fantasy into mad obsession. Real girls don’t do it for him anymore. He is tormented by all the changes that have transported him from a promising childhood to his current disjointed reality. He finds refuge in the unerring stability of a film with a happy ending, without being aware of the feedback loop that he’s caught in.
The climax of the story happens in the third verse, in which a big movie premiere is happening, and Pete finally gets the chance to wait by the red carpet and meet the object of his desires in person. He has all kinds of wretched gifts for her, and begins to shout something pitiful at her as she walks by… and she clocks him in the face. It’s unclear in the song if he deserves it or not. He is no reliable narrator. But we sympathize with him: here was this pristine fantasy; and here is the reality of the situation. Here is what you thought was inside the box; here is what is actually there. Do you like the gift that you've been given?
Pete is sad. He might be the saddest character out of all the sad sacks on That Cold Year. But in our weird, virtual world in which “what is real” can seem indistinct at times, we might have an inkling of how he got there. The Orpheum might be virtual reality, or social media, or pornography, or any other escape you can concoct. It’s there for all of us; your only job is to buy a ticket and find a seat. Who, who on Earth, could need or desire the real world – filled as it is with uncertainty and chaos and broken hearts – when there is such a beautiful, perfect fantasy playing on repeat, every week, like clockwork, just down the block?