By Eleni P. Austin
“Say what you will, say you will or will you won’t, or you whatever, You prevaricate your whole life don’t you? /This much I can say: I would’ve waited till the oceans fell away and all the sunken cities would reveal themselves to you/But you won’t will you? Because you never do.”
That’s the Decemberists, taking the hyper-literate high road chastising a long-lost love on “Lake Song.” The Portland, Oregon band, going strong now nearly 15 years, is the brainchild of Colin Meloy.
Meloy was born and raised in Helena, Montana, part of an artistic family. His original ambition was writing but he was sidetracked by music. He formed his first band, Happy Cactus, in high school.
His college years were split, studying English and theatre at the University Of Oregon in Eugene, and finishing up in the creative writing program at University Of Montana in Missoula. But he couldn’t resist the siren call of music.
Following graduation, he continued playing in Tarkio, a five-piece band he co-founded in college. They released a full-length album and a couple of EPs before Meloy decided to relocate to Portland in 1999.
As wickedly satirized in the television show, “Portlandia,” the city of Portland is full of beardy beard men, moustache wax and artisanal beverages. In short, the ideal place to let one’s freak-flag fly before biodegrading it.
Working at a pizza parlor to cover living expenses, Meloy immediately started performing at Open Mic nights around town. He hooked up with bassist, Nate Query and multi-instrumentalist, Jenny Conlee. (The duo played in the local band, Calobo, together).
The three collaborated, scoring a silent film, and the nucleus of the Decemberists was born. With the addition of drummer, Ezra Holbrook and guitarist, Chris Funk, they self-released an EP entitled 5 Songs, in 2001.
Their full-length debut, Castaways And Cutouts was released on Hush Records. Soon after, Rachel Blumberg replaced Ezra Holbrook on drums and the band signed with the well-known Northwestern indie label, Kill Rock Stars.
Best known for signing bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith, the label provided a solid foundation for the Decemberists’ wild flights of fancy. Their first album for the label, Her Majesty, The Decemberists arrived in 2003 and included tributes to author Myla Goldberg and a Marcel Duchamp painting.
The following summer, they spent a month recording in a church, adding accordion and hurdy gurdy to their already expansive sound. Picaresque arrived in 2005, the title a tart acknowledgement of the band’s penchant for clever wordplay, as well as their roguish wit. After the album was released, John Moen replaced Rachel Blumberg behind the drum kit.
In 2006 the Decemberists shocked the insular, somewhat elitist Portland Indie Rock community by signing with industry giant, Capitol Records. Any Hipster misgivings were for naught, the band didn’t suddenly morph into Coldplay. (The musical equivalent of “mom jeans”), in fact their Capitol debut was their most ambitious effort yet.
The Crane Wife arrived in late 2006, equally inspired by Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” and the Japanese folk tale it’s named for. Produced by Tucker Martine and Death Cab For Cutie guitarist, Chris Walla, the effort was fiercely unconventional. Song-cycles are almost always a risky proposition, but their gamble paid off, both critically and commercially.
Their next release, 2009’s Hazards Of Love, took another left turn. The musical style was an intriguing mélange of Prog-Rock and British Folk, kind of Rush-meets-The Fairport Convention. The original concept was a stage musical. When that became too unwieldy, the band committed to performing the album from start to finish at each concert.
2011’s The King Is Dead dove head-first into the alt.country swimming hole. Their sound was made more bucolic and pastoral, with the addition of mandolin, banjo and bouzouki. The band enlisted the talents of Indie Rock royalty, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, along with singer-songwriter Laura Viers and Roots-Rock fun couple, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. An unmitigated triumph, the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song.
Following The King Is Dead, the band took a lengthy hiatus. Colin Meloy satisfied his writing ambitions by collaborating with his wife, Carson Ellis on two children’s books. The rest of the Decemberists concentrated on their musical side project, the Bluegrass acoustic band, Black Prairie.
Now the Decemberists are back with their seventh full-length record, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World. It kicks into gear with the marvelously meta “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” Along with “Anti-Summer Song,” they drop the fourth wall and speak directly to their fans.
Opening with supplicating acoustic riffs and lone cello notes, Meloy acknowledges that the band appreciates their fans’ loyalty…“We’re aware that you cut your hair in a style that our drummer wore in the video/but with fame came a mounting claim for the evermore.” As the track gathers steam, piling on the instruments, the melody becomes a cacophonous din: Making the point that if they subvert expectations, they avoid becoming overly precious.
“Anti-Summersong” goes one further, referencing their jaunty “Summersong” from the Crane Wife. Over wheezy harmonica, pliant piano fills and a melody that splits the difference between a Celtic reel and a football chant. Meloy resolves to break with the past. “I’m not going on just to sing another ‘Summersong.’”
Musically, there’s no rhyme or reason to this album, which is a good thing. Three songs illustrate the band’s proficiency with myriad styles. “Calvary Captain” is a horn driven powerhouse. Simultaneously hook-filled and wistful, it’s a Shiny Happy sea shanty that would fit in nicely on an album by the Pogues or R.E.M.
“Philomena” feels like Elizabethan Doo-Wop. Sighing back-up vocals ooh and ah over treacly strings and chiming guitars. The lyrics are a super-sly plea to perform cunnilingus…”open up your linen lap and let me go down.”
Jittery guitar chords and downcast piano notes cascade over the spare arrangement of “Make You Better.” The lyrics paint a vivid portrait of marital ennui. On the instrumental break air raid siren guitars succeed in ratcheting up the tension.
The best songs here are the aforementioned “Lake Song” and “12/17/12.” The former is an ethereal minor key waltz anchored by a hiccup-y rhythm, flickering, firefly acoustic guitar and prickly piano chords
The lyrics conjure up the exquisite angst of first love. By turns melancholy and bitter, accusatory and thankful. “And I, seventeen and terminally fey, I wrote it down and threw it all away, and never gave a thought to what I paid/And you, sibylline, reclining in your pew, you tattered me, you tethered me to you.” It’s an epochal song, matching the urgent eloquence of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye.”
The melody of the latter is eerily reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble,” (which scored a pivotal moment in the cult classic film, “Harold And Maude.”) The lyrics juxtapose the horror of the Newtown shooting spree, and President Obama’s reaction to the carnage, with the simple pleasures of parenthood. Addressing God directly, they note the dichotomies that make up life. “O my God, what a world you have made here/What a terrible world, what a beautiful world…”
Three songs continue to stretch the Decemberists musical horizons. On “Till The Water’s All Gone,” Gypsy Jazz guitar collides with lush organ fills and a stuttery waltz rhythm. “Carolina Low” is a Southern Gothic murder ballad.
Finally, “Easy Come, Easy Go” is a smorgasbord of genres High lonesome harmonica channels the expansive Spaghetti Western tones of Ennio Morricone, the ornate arrangement recalls the Space Age Bachelor Pad sounds of Les Baxter while the reverb-drenched guitar echoes the twangy Surf Guitar approach of Dick Dale, Duane Eddy and Link Wray. Player-Piano flourishes are layered throughout, somehow the calibrated chaos works.
Other interesting tracks include “The Wrong Year,” which is propelled by a kick-drum beat and crackling guitar riffs, the banjo-riffic “Better Not Wake The Baby,” and the breezy tilt-a-whirl of “Mistral.”
The album closes, ironically, with “A Beginning Song.” A grandiloquent benediction that offers this intriguing piece of advice, “Document the world inside your skin, the tenor of your shins, the timbre of your limbs/Now commence to kick each brick apart to center on your heart.”
The Decemberists’ boundless ambition is only exceeded by their sharp capabilities. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World blurs lines and blends idioms. In short, it’s everything you have come to expect from this weird and wonderful band.