The Decemberists hit Manchester’s Albert Hall on Monday, November 12, to mark the occasion Getintothis’ Tom Evans serves up a Top Ten, dig in.
Lock up your daughters, sons, mothers, pets and pretty much anyone dear to you. No-one is safe when The Decemberists come to town. The Portland Oregon, indie-folk five-piece have a deserved reputation for crafting whimsical little ditties on the bleaker things in life, then turning the bleakness up to 11.
Some examples are listed below, but among those that didn’t make the cut are We Both Go Down Together (high-born man rapes and then murder-suicides off a cliff with a peasant woman); The Rake’s Song (father disposes of his offspring after his wife dies in childbirth) and Yankee Bayonet (pregnant woman pines for her beloved, lost amid the “bellies and the bones and the bile” on a Civil War battlefield).
In less skilled hands, the bleakness would become cloying and nauseating. But shot through all The Decemberists‘ best work is a shaft of light – courtesy of both the talented, multi-instrumental supporting cast, and frontman Colin Meloy‘s star turn.
Musically, The Decemberists‘ influences are nearly as diverse as their subject matter – jangly guitar-driven pop like REM and The Smiths used to do, introspective slices of American indie reminiscent of Death Cab For Cutie and Bright Eyes, British and Irish folk, even a little bit of country.
This year’s effort, I’ll Be Your Girl, drives them in another direction, splicing in 80s synth-pop. It’s to their credit that they don’t stand still.
But Meloy‘s lyrics, high in the mix, often augmented by keyboard player Jenny Conlee and several guest vocalists, are the key to The Decemberists‘ strange beauty.
He’s a storyteller at heart and his characters, some good, some evil, most somewhere in between, drag you along with them on their journey, be it a breezy three-minute fling or an hour-long epic.
Here are 10 examples, although on another day, it could easily be different ten. Enjoy.
10. Grace Cathedral Hill
Their 2002 debut set Castaways And Cutouts brimmed with promise, and several long-term Decemberists tropes were set in motion – there’s a murder ballad (Leslie Ann Levine), a jaunty shanty about people in desperate situations (A Cautionary Tale), and plenty of one-song characters telling their story through Colin’s lilting voice (Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect, The Legionnaire’s Lament).
But the standout track sees Colin casting away his literary pretensions and offering a stripped-down shoulder to cry on for his future wife, who’d just lost her father. ‘Some way to greet the year – your eyes all bright and rimmed with tears’ he laments, before taking her ‘fiery Irish clip and curl’ for a ride around San Fransisco. “Are you feeling better now?” he asks, and the power of the hook is all the greater for its simplicity.
9. Sixteen Military Wives
Political songs were a dime a dozen at the time 2005’s Picaresque dropped, you could hardly move for earnest leftie artists bemoaning George Bush‘s ‘War On Terror’, as it became increasingly clear what a carve-up it was.
This effort (complete with its promo video of schoolchildren playing United Nations delegates) was different for one crucial reason – like an indecisive dating app user, it swiped both left and right, lampooning the “pristine, moderate, liberal minds” of the entertainment establishment, as well as the warlike posturing of the political elite.
At the centre of it, are the titular military wives, human victims of powers beyond their control. Musically, it’s The Decemberists at their most Smiths-y; the line “and the anchor person on TV goes ‘lah-di-dah-di-dah'” could have been written for Morrissey.
8. The Hazards Of Love IV (The Drowning)
Not many bands would release an hour-long prog-rock opera about a woman falling in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller, only for her new love’s jealous mother to send an infanticidal maniac to kill her in order to keep her son (2009’s The Hazards Of Love).
It’s a tough listen at times, it has to be said. But the final track makes the previous 55 minutes worthwhile.
Our star-crossed lovers are cast adrift in a sinking boat – “painting rings around your eyes, these peppered holes too filled with crying” – but find the time to declare their devotion to one another, and take solace in the fact that “these hazards of love, never more will trouble us”.
Over a gentle, country-tinged guitar refrain, it twangs at the heartstrings by making even the most outlandish scenario seem relatable.
7. Once In My Life
The opening track from this year’s I’ll Be Your Girl is a slow-burning belter. The simplicity of the chord structure is matched by that of the sentiment, not a shape-shifter or historical atrocity in sight, as Colin merely pleads: “For once in my life, could just something go right?”
Slowly, the track builds and introduces the synthy, 80s-influenced elements that are a theme of the album. The video is worth a mention – it tells the story of a 7’2″ man with learning difficulties, and his daily struggle to have things go right. Perhaps it’s the time, or perhaps it’s their age, but the band’s social conscience seems to be coming more to the fore.
6. The Soldiering Life
It’s a task to keep up with the layers of dissonance here. The track, from 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists, is a skippy, upbeat number, so much so that if you’re not paying attention, you might miss that the chorus to which you’ve been idly humming along is actually about being “huddled in the trenches” with rifles ablaze.
But typically, Colin finds a way to inject some romance – both figuratively, in the breezy descriptions of bullets and mortars, and literally, in the central relationship between two soldiers. “Eyes aligned, swaddled in our civvies” they lie – in a scenario where “I’d rather I’d lose my limbs than let you come to harm” is less a cliche and more a foretelling of an actual dilemma.
Written in the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre and carefully positioned towards the end of 2015’s What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, this finds Colin in reflective mood with just an acoustic guitar for company.
His son was about the age of Adam Lanza‘s victims, and his wife was pregnant with their second child, both are the focus of his angst at living in a world that permits acts of such wickedness.
“You are a breath of life and a light upon the water … this cannonball in the bosom of your belly.” The inclusion of the album title towards the end hints at the significance of the song’s theme, the world is both terrible, and beautiful.
Stark, isolated chords help drive home the message – if you’re not moved by it, you’re basically Alex Jones.
4. The Crane Wife 1
The three-part epic underpinning the 2006 album of the same name relates an old Japanese folktale about a lonely, poor man who finds a wounded crane and nurses it to health, at which point a woman mysteriously shows up at his door…
There’s tragedy of sorts in the third act, in which the crane takes flight at being rumbled by the man (who, for his part, was presumably nonplussed to discover he’d been sleeping with a crane all this time) but the opening stanzas are the most memorable.
A swelling, orchestral melody builds organically as Colin tells the tall tale, and the payoff of “all the stars were crashing round as I laid eyes on what I’d found” strikes a chord with any of us who’ve suddenly met someone very special. But fully human, obviously.
3. Make You Better
There are plenty of songs about new love, explosive love, forbidden love, and waning love, there are few that capture same-old-love-but-isn’t-that-pretty-wonderful as well as this, the lead single from Terrible World.
The whole album is lighter on indie-folk subtlety than your average Decemberists set, and this raised a few heckles among the diehards when it dropped.
But while it has the crescendoing chorus, close harmonies and major-key bridge of a radio-friendly unit shifter, this is no Kings Of Leon, at its soul is a touching message, backed by a melody that delivers all it promises.
Colin is in sentimental mood, for a change, but while he accepts he’s “not so starry-eyed any more”, he knows a strong, enduring relationship will make both parties better.
2. Down By The Water
For starters, yes, this song, the first single and standout track off 2011’s The King Is Dead, is basically The One I Love. But that’s OK for two reasons – firstly, Peter Buck himself lends the guitar hook; secondly, there is no universe in which saying “this song is basically The One I Love” is anything but a compliment.
The harmonies are airtight, with a little help from Gillian Welch, and the pacier blues-rock style is a perfect fit for lyrics that paint a bleak, spiky picture of Portland’s maritime past – guided by our narrator, a “tow-head teen, feeling round for fingers to get in between”. It sounds like a stealthy double entendre – actually, it’s just dockland jargon. Peak Decemberists. Almost…
1. On The Bus Mall
A love song like no other, not only their best song but the reason Picaresque is their best album. Its protagonist and his partner are drug-addicted sex workers plying their trade on the streets of Portland, “in bathrooms and bar-rooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms”, after being ostracised from their families.
We follow them from their “rat-trap motel by the freeway” to the waterfront with its “old men with limp dicks” – by 4am, when they’re “huddled close, in the bus stop enclosure, enfolding, our hands tightly holding” we’re rooting for them like they’re our own flesh and blood.
With an E-minor chord at the end of each verse that hits you like an iron cue ball to the throat, On The Bus Mall has you sympathising, even mourning, for people whose humanity our society often programmes us to overlook.
Note-perfect storytelling, set to a tune that captures both the despair of our heroes’ situation and the hope born of their love for one another.
The Decemberists play Manchester’s Albert Hall on Monday, November 12 tickets are here.