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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

The "Dog Days Are Over," and good times are ahead... right?

Florence + the Machine believe so, but their protagonist is far from convinced.


As mentioned in the preface to yesterday’s post, today’s article is something you would’ve ideally seen on a Saturday, if not for Cal’s opening game (a 22-17 loss vs. Nevada) kicking off at 7:30 PM and ending after 11. In tribute to the amazingness that is the University of California Marching Band, I’m showcasing one of the tracks from their halftime show in the aftermath of each game they march.

Yesterday, the Cal Band marched the Comeback Show, a routine dedicated to feel-good songs in the wake of… you know… *frantically waves hands around self* Of course, they performed all five tracks exceptionally well, but one in particular stood out from the first time I heard the Band play it at the Noon Rally the day before the game, both in terms of the Band’s rendition and that of the original performers. Few 21st-century songs stand out for its time Florence + the Machine’s late 2008 hit “Dog Days Are Over.” The band’s harp-tinged indie-pop still stands out from the pack more than a decade later, and this track, their second single off their debut album Lungs was their first foray into that sound.

“Dog Days Are Over” starts unassumingly enough, with a light ukulele backing. It begins to lull the listener — until they hear Florence Welch’s first line: “Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” Wait, what? That’s… an unusual way to describe the onset of that emotion. Was the impact of the happiness so sudden and unexpected that the song’s protagonist was left reeling from it? As the verse continues, it seems that Welch answers those questions in the affirmative. As the female protagonist “hid[es] under corners” and “under beds,” and distracts herself from the happiness with alcohol and flings, it becomes readily apparent that she isn’t used to feeling happy, so she treats the emotion as an intruder on her life, fearing it rather than embracing it. Underneath this climbing fear, the music begins to build with the addition of piano, backing vocals, and claps. The backing still sounds happy all the while amidst the lyrics which seem to combat that feeling. This coordination between the music and the narrative strengthens both, and that effect is only further supplemented as the song continues.


The pre-chorus begins with the introduction of a harp, a staple of the group's sound, and a statement of the title. "Dog days" tends to refer to the hottest portions of summer, through their association with the rising of Sirius, the "Dog Star," the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, and the night sky as a whole. Among many other things, the Greeks associated the "dog days" with heat, storms, and (most relevant for today's listening) bad luck. That period being over suggests good things are coming, but the protagonist still isn't thinking that's right. This feeling of uneasiness is strengthened by the end of the pre-chorus: "The horses are coming / So you better run." The horses suggest the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, foretelling judgment on the world, the protagonists very much included. The big difference from the Book of Revelation is that, based on the rest of the song, her judgment is a positive one, but she runs away from it between her understanding of the symbol and her utter disbelief in her sudden happiness.


The talk of the horses in the lyrics fascinates me, because it implies such a different connotation on the surface than it does in the song's narrative. This sort of happiness/fear ambivalence persists throughout the track. In the chorus, Welch demands the protagonist to not look back at their former life: "Leave all your love and your longing behind / You can't carry it with you if you want to survive." This demand to move away from what she knows seems to contradict her being happy, but it's what she needs to do in order to truly be satisfied with her life. It's especially worth noting that the lyrics imply that Welch's advice isn't just for her sake, but also for her family's. Welch sings to "run fast for your mother," "father," "children," "sisters and brothers." Admittedly, I initially misheard "for" as "from," a change which paints the chorus in a completely different light. In correctly hearing the chorus on subsequent listens, I infer that the protagonist's family is on her side. It makes me believe that the happiness she finds is romantic love, something she had yet to truly experience before and something which many people definitely approach with trepidation at first.


Musically, this ambivalence is present through the focus on the minor third as Welch sings the drum-backed chorus. In a song otherwise completely grounded in a major key — G Major with a I-ii-vi progression, for those interested — the minor third can be a jarring sound, clashing with the major third just a semitone above it. The minor third is also dissonant with the roots of the two minor chords in the progression, creating intervals of a minor second and a tritone. However, that isn't a bad thing; "Dog Days Are Over" embraces that dissonance and tension in a blues-like fashion. The blues leans into dissonances for increased expression and emotional effect, and that's exactly what Welch does throughout the chorus, especially as she sings "the dog days are done" entirely on that minor third note of B-flat. Happiness is on the way for the protagonist, according to her lyrics, but the literal sound of it all makes that picture hazier.


The bridge suggests that the protagonist is beginning to come around: "And I never wanted anything from you / Except everything you had / And what was left after that too" makes it seem like she saw others being happy and is realizing what she's been missing. If my interpretation of a theme of romantic love is correct, perhaps she's seeing how happy her potential partner is with being in love with her, and she's now desiring to embrace and reciprocate their feelings. The song leaves this internal conflict unresolved, and that fits all the hesitancy and self-doubt at the core of its narrative. "Dog Days Are Over" is a dramatic song that almost seems to battle itself at times, but it ultimately strikes a delicate balance between indie and pop consonance and blues dissonance to create an unforgettable hit that foretold much of Florence + the Machine's future catalog.

 

After opening the article talking about the Cal Band, I can't end it without showing its performance. As of the time of writing, the halftime show video isn't up, so I'm linking the performance from the Noon Rally on Friday, timestamped to begin playing right at the start of "Dog Days Are Over" — though I highly encourage watching the full rally and the full halftime show when it's uploaded onto their YouTube channel.


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