Never Have to Change

“Remember when you were fourteen? You’d paint every picture so green…”

Seems like I’m doing posts in pairs. One more music post, then I’ll rotate through to another topic.

My music tastes have varied over time, but one artist has stuck with me for about a decade at this point. Back in the day, one of my middle school friends gave me a mix-CD with his favorite hits. It mostly consisted of late 90s and early 2000s hits like “All Star” (Smash Mouth), “Absolutely” (Nine Days) and “Clocks” (Coldplay). Nestled among what would become the most identifiable songs of the period were two songs I’d never heard before. Trusting my friend, I listened to the whole cd through and hit upon these songs. During my initial listen through I didn’t know that these two songs belongs not only to the same artist, but on the same CD – this was in the days of cd players, so I just saw “track-1”, “track-2”, etc. When I finally asked my friend for a list of songs so I could update the track listing, I was initially shocked that one band could pull off both of these orthogonal feels so well. A quick search found that the band in question was Guster; I had stumbled upon “Amsterdam” and “Keep it Together”.

Since then I have become a huge Guster fan. I own the bulk of their current music and I’ve preordered the next album. I went with friends to their concert when they came to Ithaca College last fall. Ever since I first listened to Amsterdam and Keep it Together I’ve known that Guster was something special musically. The catchy guitar riffs, dynamic drum lines, and unique chord progressions Guster uses in their music set them in a league all their own. While it means they might not achieve the flash-in-the-pan success that simpler songs like All Star and Absolutely did, their well thought out music stands the test of time, which to me is more important.

It took me time to realize, however, how interesting and complex the lyrics of Guster songs are. Amsterdam is not a happy, bouncy song – it is a slightly vengeful testimony of an ex-boyfriend who is cleaning out his apartment after his former girlfriend dumped him and left. Now, left among piles of her stuff, he is left alone with his thoughts and his guitar. Keep it Together isn’t song to inspire confidence – it begins with a group of shipwreck survivors who start a new society on their island, only to have it thrown back into chaos as the rest of the world finds them and forces its way of life back upon them.

For this post, however, I’m going to focus on a different song on the same album (titled Keep it Together), that I only discovered later when I purchased the remainder of the album for myself. Here’s “Red Oyster Cult”

Quick musical note for those who are unaware: a time signature designates how to count out a measure in a piece of music. In extreme brevity, 4/4 (read as four-four) means that there are 4 beats in a measure, usually equally or close to equally stressed. This means when a song is in 4/4 you can count 1…2…3…4…1..2.. (etc) at some speed and it will be “in time” with the song. Most every pop song nowadays is in 4/4. In contrast, 3/4 (read as three-four) means that there are 3 beats in a measure, usually with beat 1 stressed more than the others. For a good example of a classic 3/4 song, see “Over the River and Through the Woods” (could also be interpreted as 6/8 or 12/8, but that’s close enough for my purposes).

After my starting experience with Guster I simply had to have the whole album, so I bought it and ripped through it. Red Oyster Cult immediately attracted me because of its altering time signature – the song constantly switches between 3/4 and 4/4. Everything I’m about to note has thematic significance, so try to remember it all throughout. It begins in 3/4, but settles into 4/4 after just 8 seconds. From there the pattern seems to be verses in 4/4 and choruses in 3/4. The verses use a very straight 4/4 beat, with absolutely nothing to imply that a 3/4 feel was ever present. Everything is clean and polished. Then suddenly at 0:31 it breaks back into 3/4. The first two measures after this change are slow and quiet, but afterwards, at 0:34 we return to the same motif the song began with – a hectic, full rhythm that gives the sensation of lurching and loss of physical control. The chorus begins at 0:42 with a triplet feel rhythm within the 3/4 time (thus could be interpreted as a very fast 9/8). Mid way through the chorus voices join in with the solo, lending it power and making it more melodic. Then, suddenly, we are back to the straight 4/4 time at 0:58. This time, however, there is a triplet rhythm underneath, starting at 1:02. The 3/4 feel (chorus) is beginning to bleed into the 4/4 (verse). The same pattern follows – a few slow bare 3/4 measures and then back into a chorus at 1:36. The “bridge” – really verse three – at 1:54 is a final restatement of the verse feel and time signature. It is the barest and simplest of the three verses; the soloist is up an octave in his head voice, there is a whistle accompaniment, and the drum line barely supports him. At 2:17 we return to the simple 3/4 feel, and at 2:32, with a strong bass hum, the 3/4 chorus returns, finally dominating and destroying the 4/4 verse. From here the song continues as an instrumental, showing off varied riffs from the whole band.

Before moving on, let’s quickly look at the themes portrayed here. We have two separate worlds. One is simple and regular and unsurprising – the 4/4 verses. The other is drastic, wild, and just a little bit out of control – the 3/4 choruses. Finally, over the course of the song, the 3/4 choruses win – the 4/4 exhales its final breath at 2:16, and at 2:32 the 3/4 takes final control of the song to close it out. These are two different sides of an argument, two different world views. And when we are done, only one remains.

Now lets take a look at the lyrics. They take the general feel described above and give it a specific scenario and plot. The song addresses a person who is not the listener; I’m going to call this person Lewis, a normal name for a normal person who is thrown into anything but a normal situation.

Doesn’t it bring you down
So many lights and sounds

First of all, it seems the narrator is speaking to Lewis in the 2nd person, but that Lewis is unaware of the narrator’s presence yet. Thus the narrator is a person, Lewis is some other person, and they will come into contact. The narrator also seems sympathetic to the Lewis, and guesses or assumes that Lewis is currently feeling overwhelmed with his life and the world as a whole.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home

The narrator watches Lewis call his family and explain his woes. Lewis’ life isn’t working out the way he wanted it to, and above all he’d like to simply go home and have things be simple again.

Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

While talking with his family, Lewis says this key phrase. Lewis thought, at one time, that he was going to change the world. In the face of everything life has thrown at him, however, Lewis is giving up. This is when the 3/4 rhythm begins, a foreshadowing for what is about to occur. Our narrator has seen enough, and now decides to present himself to Lewis. During the instrumental break he enters Lewis’ apartment building and walks up to knock on his door.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

The narrator waltzes past Lewis and dances around his apartment, brandishing a cup of tea in an oyster shell. He offers membership in the “Red Oyster Cult”, a group neither the listener nor Lewis have ever heard of before (thought “Cult” is certainly dubious). In exchange for joining the cult and drinking this tea, the narrator promises the ultimate reward – eternal youth. Rationally, Lewis refuses and shoves the raving narrator out of his apartment, slamming the door afterwards.

Remember when you were 14
You’d paint every picture so green

The narrator doesn’t leave the hallway, instead painting a scene into Lewis’ past. 4/4 time has returned, but all the while a triplet rhythm continues underneath. When Lewis was a younger artist, he apparently used a much more monochromatic color scheme. The point of this statement is that when Lewis was younger, things were simpler. He worried less about how his art took form, and was happier with his final products he produced. Not so anymore.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her your muse is gone
Tell her there’s not a chance
You’re ever going to change the world

Lewis’ parents call him back, and Lewis is again angrily explaining why he must come home. The narrator giddily dances outside the door while Lewis shows down his parents and hangs up the phone.

Just a few drops away, you’ll never want to change the world

The narrator carefully cradles the cup of tea, swirling it with a spoon. Only a moment more and Lewis back to his old self, with his old abilities, mindset, and even desires.

If you want to be free, take a sip of this tea
Join the red oyster cult
If you drink the whole cup, you will never grow up
You will never grow old

As soon as Lewis hangs up the phone the narrator kicks down the door, this time followed by a parade of children. They tear the apartment apart, wildly throwing pillows and ransacking dressers and closets. Lewis tries to stop them, but each time finds himself face to face with a flawlessly innocent face and wide smile, marred only by crimson red eyes. He is unable to stop them, and lets them go about their destructive work. Amidst the chaos, Lewis understands, just in time to be knocked unconscious by a thrown book. At this, the narrator nods and signals; everyone exits out the busted door.

Call your mom on the telephone
Tell her you’re coming home
Tell her there’s not a chance you’re ever going to change the world
Just a few drops away
You’ll never have to change

Lewis finally wakes up hours later, alone among the wreckage. Everything is in disarray, save his bedside table which has been placed at the center of his apartment. On the center of the table is a cup of tea, still warm. Pushing himself onto his feet, Lewis stumbles over to the table and picks up the oyster teacup. He stares at it for a second, then drinks it in a single swallow. The apartment is bathed in red light as the process begins; pulsing wind begins to swirl at Lewis’ feet as his clothes become baggy, and the doorframe gets taller. Moments later it is done. Lewis is gone, and in his place is a small child, grinning with youthful, demonic delight, crimson eyes glinting. Everything is simple as Lewis wanted it – just as it once was, and as it will always be.


The fountain of youth, or in this case Red Oyster Tea, comes with a dire and often under appreciated curse: to never change mentally. Yes, you may stay young forever, but you will also have only the desires and thoughts of a child as well. It means mentally limiting yourself to your aspirations that you desire towards today. It is forsaking all tomorrows for a singular, infinite yesterday.

Red Oyster Cult is about the struggle we all face going through life. Imagine your darkest, most desperate moment. What if, right then, a stranger appeared to you and told you he could make everything simple again. No catch, no strings, just to become a younger version of yourself and stay that way – forever. Lewis faces such a situation, and in a fit of anger, frustration, and desperation, gives in.

Life is first and foremost a journey. As with all journeys it has its rough spots, when all hope of improvement seems lost. To desire life to return to how it once was is to turn back on Life’s journey. In the real world, It’s not how things get better. Don’t look back and despair, rather take the next step forward and focus on how to fix the problems you face today.

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