Earlier this yr, within the earlier than instances of historic February, The Decemberists introduced that they’d be hitting the highway to have a good time 20 years collectively as a band. That potential tour has, in fact, been postponed—we’ll have to attend till subsequent summer season on the absolute earliest to learn the way the premier Ren Faire troubadours of indie rock plan on celebrating this important anniversary. However the secure wager could be: extravagantly. Props will in all probability be deployed. Sing-alongs will certainly be inspired. An unfinished ditty about Dracula’s daughter might be dusted off for the needs of self-deprecation. Virtually definitely, an enormous paper-mâché whale will make an look. Giving historical past its correct due is type of this band’s complete raison d’être. Is there any purpose to suppose they wouldn’t pull out all theatrical stops for his or her personal historical past?
It’s a aptitude for the dramatic, that penchant for treating each live performance corridor just like the Globe (or possibly identical to the auditorium of Rushmore Academy), that’s made The Decemberists such a preferred dwell act. However all of the community-theater gimmickry—the dress-up and crowd work and nautical showmanship—is icing on the Victorian cake. The actual drama is baked proper into the music itself. On stage, as on report, the Decemberists songbook is a brief story quantity as thick because the collected works of Dickens or Dostoevsky, its pages populated by a teeming ensemble of cannibal kings, forest queens, orphans, concubines, legionnaires, barrow boys, chimbley sweeps, widows, vagabonds, and mariners. To paraphrase one of many band’s quintessential ballads, The Decemberists have been meant for the stage. However they have been raised within the library.
Shaped on the flip of the millennium, when Colin Meloy moved to Portland and met multi-instrumentalists Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, and Nate Question, The Decemberists sounded out of step and out of time from the soar: an anachronism of bohemian kitsch. Meloy—who would develop into the band’s bookish frontman and fundamental lyricist—got here from a household of writers and introduced a hyper-literate sensibility. Along with his archaic wordplay and pronunciation, he crafted story-songs often so dense in reference that they cried out for each footnotes and CliffsNotes. His nasally croon caught limitless comparisons to Impartial Milk Resort, however his influences ran wider and deeper: to Dylan Thomas and Herman Melville, to Marcel Duchamp and Edward Gorey, to Slavic delusion and Japanese folklore. And whereas lots of the period’s rising stars have been “retro” principally of their ’70s guitar-rock worship, right here was a band that reached again a lot additional, to the battlefields, palaces, and huge verandas of centuries previous.
They constructed a fanbase quick. Simply three years after the discharge of their debut LP, the lilting and unhappy Castaways And Cutouts, The Decemberists have been headlining the primary Pitchfork Music Pageant. With the acclaim got here skepticism and derision: There have been lots who rolled their eyes (and nonetheless do) at Meloy’s five-dollar phrases and his band’s dorky pirate-ship cosplay. (In a style that typically prizes cool over all else, The Decemberists are unabashedly uncool—the theater youngsters crashing promenade to a refrain of boos.) At instances, the group’s model has threatened to harden right into a shtick; by the point they slapped their identify on a board recreation, it had definitely develop into a model. That’s in all probability not less than partially why current data have deviated from that playbill, setting the Outdated English dictionary and dusty tomes of forgotten fables and seafaring anecdotes again on the shelf.
But to focus solely on the storybook presentation, as diehards and detractors alike typically do, is to disclaim the drive of the storytelling. Meloy, for all his affectations of tongue and gown, can weave a yarn brilliantly; 18-minute Celtic sagas apart, he truly has fairly the reward for brevity, and may construct an entire narrative in our heads from only a few evocative turns of phrase. Likewise, getting hung up on the frills does a disservice to the songcraft—the emotive energy of Meloy’s supply, the subtle employment of unique sounds and devices by his bandmates, the entire collective’s means with a hook. And whereas the early materials suits moderately snugly right into a baroque-folk wheelhouse, the band’s musical vocabulary has steadily expanded to match their linguistic one, including funk, Britpop, doo-wop, ’70s prog, stoner steel, Americana, R.E.M.-grade guitar rock, and—most lately—synth pop to the repertoire.
Solely a few of these sounds are represented on the 60-minute tune sampler that follows. Although culled from nearly the whole lot of the Decemberists oeuvre (the current and unsure I’ll Be Your Lady is the lone LP omitted), this playlist closely favors the band’s first decade. Likewise, these looking for an outline of their experiments in length gained’t discover them right here; solely one of many chosen songs extends previous the six-minute mark. Lastly, and to that time, now we have uncared for to incorporate what’s arguably the reigning fan favourite of the Decemberists canon: sea shanty and audience-participation staple “The Mariner’s Revenge Track,” which is numerous enjoyable but additionally 9 minutes lengthy and—blasphemy alert—not amongst their best possible. Anyway, in the event you’re new to this band, you’re going to wish to hear (and see!) that one on stage, every time Meloy and firm can return to it. There’s a whale concerned and all.
“My Mom Was A Chinese language Trapeze Artist” (2001)
One of many earliest Decemberists songs didn’t begin as one. Meloy recorded “My Mom Was A Chinese language Trapeze Artist” along with his first band, the country-leaning Tarkio, whereas taking inventive writing lessons on the College Of Montana. It sounds, nonetheless, like a mission assertion for the group he’d kind only a yr later. Nestled into the center of the (misleadingly named) debut EP 5 Songs, and freshly augmented with a nostalgic whine of accordion, the monitor finds Meloy spinning a multi-generational historical past, the narrator recounting how his mother and father met and finally gambled him away. There’s a making-it-up-as-he-goes-along high quality to the fake biography, reportedly impressed by a hellish household trip that obtained the singer daydreaming a few extra fascinating upbringing. He’d sharpen his storytelling on the albums that adopted, however a lot of Meloy’s hallmarks seem right here first, from the thesaurus-friendly terminology to the forged of outsized characters, together with gymnasts, resistance fighters, harlots, communists, and—most notably, for these aficionados of the life aquatic—a blind brigadier with an unlimited information of yardarms.
“O Valencia!” (2006)
For a band that’s invested so closely within the misplaced artwork of the album—in delivering data, in different phrases, that play greatest as a cohesive complete, even after they consist completely of vignettes—The Decemberists aren’t any slouches at delivering an irresistible standalone, a lead single for the hoi polloi. And so they certainly wanted one to anchor The Crane Spouse, their first album after decamping to Capitol. “O Valencia!” rises spectacularly to the event, using peppy earworm guitar to one in every of their most rousingly memorable choruses. However there’s no compromise to the band’s values and downbeat themes within the precise content material of the tune, a contemporary gloss on the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet. In truth, a part of what makes the tune such a profitable addition to any setlist is the stress between the intense sheen of the manufacturing and the darkish flip of occasions described. As Meloy bellowed of Valencia (the town or his slain love, it’s by no means clarified), followers breathed a sigh of reduction that success hadn’t but spoiled him.
“The Soldiering Life” (2004)
Troopers determine prominently into the Decemberists discography: wandering international landscapes, preventing for misplaced causes, pining for a homecoming they might not dwell to see. However the very best of those odes to the infantry is the one which finds pleasure, not despair, within the trenches. Over a gradual strum and a whimsical tinkle, Meloy sings of a burgeoning attraction between two brothers in arms, relishing the innuendoes (presumably phallic riffles “blaze away”) and wrapping his lips suggestively round phrases like “pantaloons.” However simply once you suppose the tune would possibly quantity to little greater than a cheeky salute to homoeroticism within the navy, the refrain hits, romantically inflating the emotions passing between these besotted grunts huddled shut on the battlefield. By the arrival of horns on the grand finale, their love—in all probability taboo, presumably unstated and unconsummated—swells as triumphantly because the crowds on V Day.
“July, July!” (2002)
At below three minutes, “July, July!” must be among the many shortest songs within the Decemberists catalog. It stands proud towards the extra somber, reflective tales on Castaways And Cutouts, which established the overall taste and aesthetic of the band (right down to the looks of a large ship on the quilt, illustrated by Carson Ellis, who was relationship and is now married to Meloy) with out fairly anticipating the up-tempo playfulness of future work. Honestly, although, few of the extra fanciful toe-tappers Meloy would write within the years to return can compete with the organ-abetted festiveness of this one, which maintains its bouncy pleasures on stage, even after 18 years of run-throughs. It’s additionally delightfully morbid for such a catchy tune, its lyrics tilting in the direction of entrails (“his guts have been all suspended in his fingers”) and spectral poultry (“And the chickens how they rattle rooster chains”).
“Valerie Plame” (2008)
When Meloy appears to be like to actual life for inspiration, he normally reaches very far again; if an occasion may be referred to as “current” by any stretch of the creativeness, he’s in all probability not dramatizing it—which makes “Valerie Plame” an exuberant outlier. Launched as a part of the singles sequence At all times The Bridesmaid, this cheery pop confection recounts the 2003 retaliatory outing of the eponymous CIA agent from the first-person perspective of one in every of her contacts, confessing his affection for the spy he escorted from the “inexperienced zone Marriott” on his Vespa. Romance amongst operatives is a well-liked topic of the songwriter—one may, certainly, name this a extra lighthearted and fact-based companion to his earlier “The Bagman’s Gambit”—however the tone right here is tongue-in-cheek, particularly when “Valerie Plame” transforms, in its ultimate stretch, right into a full-blown parody of “Hey Jude.” Nonetheless, Meloy can’t assist however find some real emotion in his ripped-from-the-headlines materials: The bridge, through which this unnamed confidant learns the reality from a TV display, is among the many band’s most stirring.
“The Engine Driver” (2005) and “On The Bus Mall” (2005)
The dual pinnacles of Colin Meloy’s songwriting profession sit again to again on one album, in direct dialog with one another. “The Engine Driver,” from 2005’s Picaresque, begins like a callback to “Right here I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” with Meloy operating via a sequence of professions he’s solely occupied in his creativeness. However then the veil drops, as he confesses what he actually is: a “author of fictions,” churning out “pages upon pages” to purge his heartbreak over an unrequited romance. Even by itself phrases, it’s enormously poignant—a stealth confessional from an artist who usually avoids confession, providing an evidence as to why he appears to put in writing from each perspective besides his personal. However the true masterstroke is the best way the tune fades seamlessly into the album’s shimmering highpoint, “On The Bus Mall,” through which Meloy unfurls one in every of his most empathetic narratives, the chronicle of two teenage intercourse staff discovering solace in one another’s friendship. By way of their proximity to one another, the songs balloon with new that means, making the case for getting private in a roundabout means—for channeling your true self via fiction.
“Cavalry Captain” (2015)
“We needed to change some,” Meloy croons on “The Singer Addresses His Viewers,” the opening monitor of The Decemberists’ most middle-of-the-road report. This fourth-wall-breaking pronouncement was the frontman’s means of admitting that his band had shed qualities that followers cherished, from the allusions to the bold tune buildings. However whereas most of What A Horrible World, What A Lovely World makes a quiet argument towards so-called creative evolution, not less than one monitor offers the extra streamlined, much less gloriously nerdy Decemberists identify: Craftily sequenced proper after Meloy’s mea culpa, “Cavalry Captain” is three-plus minutes of bittersweet fanfare, the singer belting romantic overtures to the triumphant accompaniment of a horn part. Annotaters must accept an offhand nod to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Cost Of The Gentle Brigade,” however the tune’s infectious attraction towers as tall because the seafaring vessels The Decemberists could also be over now.
“We Each Go Down Collectively” (2005)
Like “O Valencia!,” this different story of star-crossed amour attracts energy from the uneasy relationship between its music and lyrics. However it’s an excellent trickier subversion. Recounting the double suicide of two younger lovers of reverse social station, the tune frames its story within the melodramatic phrases its unreliable narrator would possibly favor, via achingly operatic strings and Meloy’s impassioned supply. However parse the phrases extra intently and a much less romantic interpretation seems between the cracks of the character’s account: the story of a spoiled wealthy child plucking some determined lady out of poverty, taking what he desires from her (“You wept however your soul was prepared”), and pressuring her into throwing her life away as a result of his mother and father wouldn’t approve of him marrying her. Tragic on a degree its fundamental character can’t or gained’t see, “We Each Go Down Collectively” strengthens the case that Picaresque is The Decemberists’ richest report—the second when every little thing simply clicked for them, the storytelling tightening with the musicianship.
“Pink Proper Ankle” (2004)
Typically overshadowed by the grandiose preparations and florid language is Meloy’s expertise for a easy, candy melody. Hardly ever has it been on higher show than on this stripped-down gem from the band’s breakthrough second album, Her Majesty, The Decemberists. Armed with an acoustic guitar, the songwriter pays tribute to a much less generally heralded spotlight of anatomy, tying collectively descriptions of the titular limb right into a love story for his wife-to-be (reportedly penned after an enormous combat between them). Meloy being Meloy, he can’t fairly resist inserting a cameo look by Ellis’ “gypsy uncle,” or cleverly switching between a bodily and figurative use of the center. However “Pink Proper Ankle” nonetheless feels about as emotionally direct as he’s allowed himself to be in entrance of a microphone—and the tune’s minimalism stays a pleasant change of tempo inside a physique of labor ornately adorned in additional methods than one.
“The Rake’s Track” (2009)
After years of flirting with the excesses of prog and the self-indulgence of the old-school idea report, The Decemberists lastly fulfilled their future to inflict a full-blown rock opera on the world. The Hazards Of Love, their divisive wade into album-length fantasy, is admittedly too monolithic a piece to suit the Energy Hour parameters; we’d want a stable three to 5 songs, one flowing into the following, to seize the total D&D vibe of this very… further achievement. Solely “The Rake’s Track” is well excised, principally as a result of it already capabilities as a story detour: a fast except for one of many album’s villains, who regales us with how he killed his personal kids (!!!) to revert to carefree bachelorhood. Nonetheless, even with out the thunderbolts of Chris Funk’s electrical riffing and appearances by numerous visitor stars, the tune’s unplugged heavy-metal stomp and snarled refrain convey a few of Hazard’s lumbering hesher spirit. It should take a take heed to the total behemoth of an album, although, to get the payoff of The Rake’s inadvertent foreshadowing: “Guess you suppose that I must be haunted…”
“The Crane Spouse 1 & 2” (2006)
There was room for only one jumbo-screen Decemberists epic on this record, and with apologies to the Youth And Magnificence Brigade, The Tain, and that terrifying journey to the stomach of a whale, it needed to be “The Crane Spouse.” Technically, the title monitor off the band’s leap to the big-label massive leagues is two tracks; half three—a beautiful denouement—eccentrically opens the album in media res, permitting Meloy and firm to work their means again to the beginning of the story. However it’s the two-part medley finishing the arc that demonstrates the wonder this band can conjure with some further respiratory room. Primarily based on a Japanese folktale a few peasant who marries a shape-shifting chook, “The Crane Spouse 1 & 2” builds and builds, from the softly plucked strings of its scene-setting first minutes to the full-band crescendo of melancholic chamber pop it ends on. Most remarkably, Meloy finds the tender soul on the middle of his historic, recounted fable. “It rakes at my coronary heart,” he cries within the powerhouse finale. Ours too.
“Don’t Carry It All” (2011)
On The Hazards Of Love, The Decemberists pushed their obsession with intricate, overblown story-songs to its logical endpoint. What may they presumably do for an encore? The reply was cleanse their palates with a lean, sturdy, and tuneful Americana report, one with out something in the best way of an overarching theme or Dickensian forged of oddballs. The King Is Useless, a title hinting at a extra everlasting shift in priorities than what followers may need guessed, scored The Decemberists their first No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and successfully paved the best way for the tidier, much less flamboyant albums they’ve put out since. However it’s arduous to carry that towards songs this pleasing—particularly the opening monitor, “Don’t Carry It All,” a harmonica-driven anthem from a band gracefully getting old into its second chapter. In the event that they reduce extra this excessive in caliber, we are able to forgive them protecting their ft on dry land, with nary an armada nor leviathan in sight.