About a month and a half ago, I spoke to Colin Meloy, lead singer of the Decemberists. Mr. Meloy writes the songs, and has a degree in creative writing. “Do you ever think you’ll write again?” I asked him, but I quickly caught myself”write prose again.” Now, audibly flustered, I backtracked: “Because what you’re doing is writing. Writing songs, I mean, is writing. Songwriting.”
And this is true. Songs are poems, and Meloy is penning epics. Notably, the band’s most recent release, The Tain, is a single eighteen-minute track in five movements. It features both searing guitar and accordion solos. Yes, it is a ballad, but this is no hair metal band. The piece is based on the Irish Epic T’ain B’o Cuailnge, called the Irish Beowulf. In fact, all of the Decemberists’ music is steeped in an intellectualism that should whet the appetite of any red-blooded U of C student. Hell, they’re named after a group of 19th century Russian rebels!
Meloy doesn’t deny it either, acknowledging unusual influences, both direct and indirect. Much of the Iberian gypsy flavors on their debut release Castaways and Cutouts, and more recently on their second full-length Her Majesty, he attributes to Hemingway. Two songs on Her Majesty are ripped from episodes in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood (recently performed by UT). Less talented writers and musicians doing this sort of thing might be easily dismissed as a novelty. It isn’t enough to be smart; you need to rock. And the Decemberists rock.
And they rock for several reasons. More than four, no doubt, but truth be told I’m writing this at work and I’d like to keep my job so we’ll keep it down to three, then I’ll get back to laminating things.
I) Many of their songs maintain a sort of hot-little-number pop sensibility even while telling great stories. Examples include “Angel, Won’t You Call Me, ” The Apology Song,” and “July, July.” These songs make you sing out loud. Sometimes, they are even ass-shake friendly.
II) The songs really are stories. Most artists try to reach out to a wide audience by writing about experiences and emotions that are accessible to most anyone. That’s not a bad thing. Unfortunately, most of them do it generically: I love you so much, I want to kill myself, etceteras, etceteras. The Decemberists do not. The stories they tell are bizarre, they conjure up new worlds, they take us to World War I trenches, to 19th-century docks, to peculiarly magical brothels. All the while, the themes are universal. Love, loss, joy, sadness. Listen to Her Majesty all the way through and you’ll feel like something bigger than an album has just washed over you. It’s that feeling you get when you finish a great book and you feel like you haven’t just read something, you’ve realized something. Pretty good for a little indie band.
III) They put on a great show. In addition to great musicianship and an arsenal that includes not only an accordion but a massive gong, the band seems to have a great time on stage; they play the Soviet anthem before they come on stage, they have one or two choreographed moves, and, again, they have a giant gong. I saw them at the Metro, and they not only filled the place, they filled it with people who were mouthing the words to every song. And, for the most part, dancing. That’s pretty important, because if you can’t dance at a concert, I don’t have much use for it.
IV) Bonus Reason: Meloy is a really nice guy. He talked to me for longer than he needed to, indulged dumb questions, and gave the impression of being very intelligent without being the least bit pretentious.
Their next album is going to be recorded very soon, in an old church near Portland, Oregon (the band’s hometown). Apparently, faeries will be involved.
So go listen to the Decemberists. You’ll be glad you did.