The Decemberists

Libby DeGregorio

In the past decade, The Decemberists have released seven albums and three EPs. Through listening to them and imagining myself within their lyrics, I’ve been a man who marries a magical bird, a sailor viciously avenging my mother’s death, a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting boreal forest dweller, and a botanist during the siege of Stalingrad. I’ve died at birth; I’ve lost my true love; and I’ve murdered my three children. The Decemberists, from Portland, Oregon, are an indie folk-rock band, and their songs don’t just contain inventive and complex lyrics; they are stories that you become. With an imaginative and witty songwriter, Colin Meloy, the band enjoys “challenging [them]selves, toying with structure, and having a sense of humor” (Fricke “Unlikely Pop Triumph” 34). The Decemberists, who claim that their official drink is Orangina and that they love the video game Bioshock, are known for their folklore lyrics and eclectic music that produce imaginative nonfiction stories only a select few minds could manufacture. They have been making music since the early 2000s, and with every album, The Decemberists have maintained a story-telling song structure, even as their musical style and sound has evolved. Unfortunately, however, the stories told through the lyrics have increasingly lost the eloquence and detail they once contained, as the band’s fan base grew and caused them to move toward the lowest common denominator.

Growing up in Helena, Montana, Colin Meloy, the frontman of The Decemberists, was a solitary, imaginative kid who “was always attracted to fairy-tale motifs and stories” (qtd. in Fricke “Decemberists” 72). It was this love for fantastical writing that fueled the formation of The Decemberists. In 1999, Meloy was playing in an indie-rock band, Tarkio, and planning on becoming a novelist (72). However, the “write what you know, creative non- fiction” approach to writing he was taught at the University of Montana led Meloy to do the opposite of writing fantasy novels. He began writing songs. And instead of writing this realist, kind of stoic non-fiction, he explained in an interview with NPR that he chose to write about things outside of his experience; he began telling stories entirely outside of his setting in history. As he puts it:

from a young age I’ve always had a predilection for a kind of verbal acrobatics. I’ve always had a real love for alliterative poetry and songwriting, and music and writing that really uses the whole breadth of the English language in all of its many amazing sounds, and how those sounds play off each other. (qtd. in Moss 52)

For example, after his band Tarkio broke up, and Meloy’s future as a career musician was in limbo, he sat down in his dining-room, imagining what it would be like to have traveling Chinese trapeze artists as parents. He wrote a tale about how his trapeze artist mother smuggled bombs for the Resistance, how his father was an Axis spy, how his sister grew tobacco in South Carolina, and how he was born in a brothel, raised by prostitutes who lost him to a blind brigadier in a game of high-stakes canasta (52). The story was never intended to be played out; it was just a way to make himself laugh in a time of stress. However, his larkish tale would become the storyline for the song “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” which appeared on the The Decemberists’ 2001 debut album, 5 Songs, and became the start of Meloy’s clever wordplay and narrative lyrics for which The Decemberists are known.

After the abject failure of Tarkio, Colin Meloy was reluctant, yet eager, to start another band, so he left Helena for Portland, Oregon. Here, he met his new band mates Jenny Conlee, a keyboard and accordionist, and Nate Query, a bassist, through mutual friends. He immediately asked them to start playing with him. Nate Query specifically remembers thinking that “they totally hit it off. The band was great. The music was great. And it just went from there” (Paris). Their first project was scoring a silent film, which Meloy admits “probably sounded like shit and was performed pretty sloppily. But it really soldered something between the three of [them]” (Paris). They became The Decemberists. They started booking gigs, and really developed a camaraderie out of pure enjoyment for what they were doing; the sound was different, and they were all interested in experimenting. Not only was their camaraderie useful to the development of the band, but they all brought different influences that contributed to its overall sound and visage. Colin Meloy drew from Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths, The Pogues, Robyn Hitchcock and R.E.M, contributing to The Decemberists’ “indie” sound. In addition, Nate Query grew up with Americana and bluegrass, bringing folk roots to the Decemberists. Jenny Conlee appreciated classical music and listened to heavy rock, which gave The Decemberists a more heavy-orchestral touch. There is a keen balance of power in the music, and every band member is aware of the end goal. The songs of the Decemberists are “Colin’s songs. While [Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and Chris Funk] are just the hands that make them happen” (Fricke,“Decemberists” 72).

The first album, 5 songs, made over three days, was a crystal-clear, simple and folk-informed album. It was made just to get a demo out there, to see if anyone would listen. It was by no means a bad release; however, listening to it is most useful as a way to truly appreciate the greatness of the band’s other albums. A year later in 2002, The Decemberists released their first full length album, Castaways and Cutouts, which was heavy acoustic folkrock, with baroque instrumentation, but still much like its predecessor, 5 Songs. Shortly after Castaways and Cutouts, the Decemberists released Her Majesty, The Decemberists (2003), which veered toward the theatrical style of Meloy’s work and was more bold. By their next album Picaresque (2005), there was an expansion in indie music. Lead by bands like Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, indie music became expected to contain orchestral sounds. Picaresque was recorded in a church and the first of the Decemberists’ albums to incorporate orchestral sounds. It was the least stagy, most serious, and most accomplished effort by The Decemberists yet. The sound was dynamic and impassioned, and was exactly what people wanted to hear. The Decemberists fan base grew exponentially. Then, a year later, with The Crane Wife (2006), The Decemberists hit their peak. They still incorporated the desired orchestral sounds, but brought in more Progressive-rock roots. The Crane Wife “rock[ed] harder than anything The Decemberists have done previously, a watershed moment for a band as much noted for its idiosyncrasies as its songs” (Deusner).

By The Hazards of Love (2009), they drew from Anne Briggs, and they became this quasi, fake metal band that presented this dark, rock opera with an overriding narrative. Although clever and witty, The Hazards of Love was the start of The Decemberists downfall. Meloy expressed that “doing The Hazards of Love took a lot out of [him], and [he] was definitely curious what would come out now that [he’s] got that out of [his] system” (Deusner). Therefore, their latest album, The King is Dead (2011), was a good, roomy and rustic country-folk record influenced by Emmylou Harris, early Wilco, Neil Young, and R.E.M. However it was standard, it was populist, and it was more disposed to mass appeal. This contradicts what Meloy was trying to do when he first began writing music and is a perfect example of how the band lost what made them unique.

Just after The King is Dead was released, Meloy revealed with a tinge of sarcasm, “I don’t even like [The Decemberists] anymore. I used to. I liked our first couple of records, but… I don’t know” (Meloy). Looking back to “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” the lyrics of The King is Dead illustrate how the album was forced, and just made palatable to fans. With Castaways and Cutouts, the central narrative of the album reveals the tales of life’s castaways, including Spanish gypsies, Turkish prostitutes, and Chinese traveling trapeze artists. In The King is Dead there is no discernible narrative; the concept is linear and there is no connection between songs. For example, start with the opening song “Don’t Carry It All,” a straightforward testament to civility and social justice, then skip ahead a couple songs and listen to “January Hymn” where Meloy sings simply about time passing and snow. There is no elaborate tale or narrative, just witty lyrics that communicate a plain idea. Overall, the album was smooth and well produced, and reached number one on the Billboard charts, but it wasn’t what they once produced, which was disappointing to many fans. So, unfortunately, there is no clear future for The Decemberists, and ultimately, the fan base they accumulated with their recent albums wasn’t what Meloy desired. It made him more uncomfortable than excited. He expressed that “[he] [doesn’t] know if [he] can go back to the long-form songs, it would feel redundant. But to continue making records likeThe King Is Dead, which is going back to a more comfortable way of writing — that’s not a good thing either” (Fricke, “Unikely Pop Triumph” 34).

However, until then, there is a new way Colin Meloy fans can still get lost in his words. Last year, he published his first novel, Wildwood (2011), a tale of high adventure, witty statements, and flawless illustrations. This novel will be the first of three, and will eventually be adapted into a small animated film. The series is intended for nine to twelve year-olds; however, there is no doubt that the majority of those reading it will be solemn fans like myself, just wanting to be a part of another one of Meloy’s stories.

Works Cited

“Decemberists.” Decemberists. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2012.

Deusner, Stephen M; Hogan, Marc “The Decemberists | Pitchfork.” Pitchfork. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.

Fricke, David. The Decemberists.” Rolling Stone Oct 19 2006: 72, 76. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.

—., ” The Decemberists’ Unlikely Pop Triumph.” Rolling Stone 1127 (2011): 34-35. Music Index. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

Meloy, Colin. “Colin Meloy Talks about the Music of His Band the Decemberists.” Washington, D.C., United States, Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio, 2005. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 28 Oct. 2012.

—., Interview by Scott Compton. Video recording interview. 14 Feb. 2011.

Moss, Mark D. “The ancient modernism of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy.” Sing Out! Summer 2008: 52+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

Paris Before the War. Dir. Jeff Feller. Perf. The Decemberists. 2006. DVD.

Instructor’s Memo

For the second sequence in English 100 our class wrote and read reviews. We discussed their structure, how they incorporated research and analysis and how they sought balance while also taking a particular argumentative stance. The first short writing assignment asked students to review a local restaurant while the second asked them to evaluate a common word or phrase from their vocabulary. The hope was that by the time they started working on the major essay, they would be comfortable in this type of writing.

Among five essay prompts, Libby chose to write a critical review on a musician, in her case, Colin Meloy, the lyricist and primary songwriter of The Decemberists. Some of the writing process was rather straight-forward. Libby found information on Meloy’s and the band’s history while also incorporating the opinions of music reviewers from major music publications. The more difficult tasks came when Libby had to take the role of a music reviewer. Part of this process meant listening and re-listening to songs and albums and trying to make sense of when and how Meloy changed in his approach to song-writing and lyrics.

It was clear from talking to Libby in class and at conferences that she had strong personal opinions on Meloy’s and the band’s change in sound and lyrics. We discussed the importance of not letting the essay become a simple fan response, that it would be better to think of the essay as her way of making sense of Meloy as a musician and person. In short, who was this guy and what was he doing to The Decemberists? The most obvious way to look more closely at Meloy was to analyze his lyrics and his interview statements, which became launching points for analysis and development in Libby’s essay. To help in the process, I encouraged her to approach his interviews and lyrics in much the same way she’d approach a text in a literature class. Though this aspect of her paper is a strength now, it took several drafts to strike the right balance of personal reflection and impartial analysis.

There’s so much I admire about this essay. For one, I don’t think readers have to love or listen to The Decemberists, to understand and enjoy this critical review. Any reader, no matter their musical taste, should be fascinated by how this essay looks at of how art and imagination changes, and how artists, even the ones we love, can produce less than awe-inspiring work. These ideas are explored through a voice which is natural but not casual, analytical but not monotonous, confident but not preachy. Finally, I admire this essay because after I read it, I continue to be curious about The Decemberists, about Meloy, about inspiration. I want to know what happens next.

—Josh Kalscheur

Writer’s Memo

In this piece, I have given a researched overview of the history of the band The Decemberists and how they have changed over time. This is my review of the band as a whole, and more specifically at times, the singer/songwriter, Colin Meloy.

At first, this project was difficult and I didn’t know exactly how to approach it. The Decemberists have done a lot in the past decade, and there were many different stances I could take on how the band and music has changed. Eventually, I realized what exactly disappointed me with their latest album: the fact that they produced it just to please fans. I then developed a researched history that set up for that belief.

My earlier narrative helped me learn how to “show, not tell.” One of my goals in writing was to introduce the band to potential new fans, making them feel as if they had actually heard the albums and could relate to the Decemberists fan experience. Of course, the disappointment most die-hard fans feel is part of that experience. I hoped that other serious fans would feel comforted that others felt the same way they probably do. None of our disappointment means that we dislike the band’s new albums. I love running to the metal- opera tones of “Hazards of Love.” It’s just that the newer ones leave us missing the narrative creativity of the earlier albums. If readers can understand and feel this kind of devoted disappointment, then I accomplished what I wanted to do. That’s what I’ll take away from the course, in the end. “Show, don’t tell.” Write less like you’re speaking to a friend who already understands you and more like you are making someone new understand you with nothing but the piece itself.

Overall, I think I communicate my concerns, hopes, and predictions for their future well. I really enjoyed writing the paper. And thanks to having to do so much research about The Decemberists, I can tell you almost anything about the band, and can whole-heartedly admit that I am in love with Colin Meloy.

— Libby DeGregorio

Student Writing Award: Explanatory Essay

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The Decemberists by Libby DeGregorio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.