Nicolay, the keyboardist, lays down a harpsichord line that dominates much of “One for the Cutters.” Writer Thum Jurek, over at AllMusic criticizes this choice, writing “it dulls the impact of Finn’s searing words that reference characters from his previous songs.” I take issue to this twice – first, because there’s no evidence I can find that “One For The Cutters” actually does reference other characters from earlier songs (though, of course, with Craig Finn’s lyrics that is always a possibility) and second because I think the harpsichord serves a genuine thematic purpose in the song.
Set in Bloomington, Indiana, the song is about a college girl who gets involved with a local boy who becomes a murder suspect. The locals are disparagingly referred to as “townies” on several occasions, which suggests that there is an element of class struggle going on here. The harpsichord, as an instrument associated with the refined upper class, sets the POV of the song – we’re hearing this story from the point of view of an upper class character. The townies are thought of as basically trees – “when one townie falls in the forest, can anyone hear it?”
I had not noticed this until I read the description at the Hold Steady wiki, but it seems like the girl and boy don’t get away with murder – “one drop of blood on Immaculate Keds” suggests that the police may have found evidence that the girl (who lies and insists the boy was with her the night of the crime) was providing a false alibi. Furthermore, the last line of the song (“But when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different”) suggests that either the trial had an effect on her or that she wasn’t coming home from college, but home from jail.
Another great story song – and a second murder investigation tune.