I’ve seen The Decemberists five times now (six if you count the time me & Beej saw a Colin Meloy solo show in Lawrence): never in the same venue twice. KC, MO (The Uptown Theatre); NYC (Central Park); Lawrence, KS (Meloy Solo @ Liberty Hall); STL (The Pageant); LA #1 (UCLA’s Royce Hall); LA #2 (The Wiltern). Maybe that’s not so strange, but it seems to be, if nothing else, accidentally eclectic (please note I’m aware that many people have seen their favorite bands in numbers that approach or exceed triple digits). Of the venues, St. Louis’ has the best layout. Also of note that I tend to buy multiple tickets & take friends with me to see the shows. I’m perpetually introducing this band to people.
Which and a few Saturdays ago was no exception. Ashley’s new to their music in general the past couple months and Adam came aboard only in 2009 when we threw on “The Hazards of Love” during our drive out west. I warned her “I’ll probably be singing the entire time, I hope that’s okay.” (The word “probably” being an intensity-of-band-love moderating term with no basis in reality and no chance of not being surpassed.)
I’ve been listening to The Decemberists since 2006 and it’s a rare-but-true case where the first song of theirs I ever heard remains my favorite. Sometimes a thing can hit you so hard you kindof absorb it into you and the force of it all is stamped onto your outlook. It just so happens, too, that that’s what “The Engine Driver” is all about to me. It and they’ve been a mainstay on my iPod & in my car ever since. I’m that guy who scours the internet looking for lost tracks and B-sides, obscure performances and band interviews. Who owns four band t-shirts (brown-2; gray-1, maroon-1) and pre-orders their albums from their site so he can get a limited-in-number autographed CD booklet. Who sings along to every word of every song not because he’s sat down to memorize them but because he’s listened to all the songs that many times.
Full disclosure: My musical history is weak-to-totally-abysmally-embarrassingly-bad. I don’t retain song names. It takes me a nice long while to get music in mind and remembered. I can’t tell you the frontman for 90% of the stuff I like, let alone the band’s other members, or who supplied guest vocals or played guitar for two tracks on their last album. I haven’t listened to enough of The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or The Who or Pink Floyd or Van Morrison or Van Halen (I used to not know the difference) or The Beach Boys or The Doors or Billy Joel or Elton John or Bruce Springstein or The Smiths or The Rolling Stones or anything Phil Spector produced or Motown or blah blah blah these are just the first ones who came to mind. One time an ex-girlfriend and I got in a sizeable and enjoyment-of-day-ending fight in a Pizza Hut when I overreacted to her shock at my not recognizing certain songs. She was right that I didn’t really know anything, I guess I just mishandled the waves of judgment she heaped on me for my sins of omission.
There are multitudes I don’t know and will probably never know, but I do know The Decemberists. They are of course known for their hyper-literate lyrics and exuberantly complex arrangements. That’s why I fell in love with them. I eat $10 words by the handful, and complexity, ambition, and (oh yes) indulgence create an Artistic Bermuda Triangle from which my interests will probably never escape. The Decemberists do it with such a high success rate, too, that I’m perpetually standing back in awe. From “The Mariner’s Revenge” to all three parts of “The Crane Wife” to the cover-to-cover brilliance of “The Hazards of Love,” plus “The Tain” and the deconstructo-playful “I Was Meant For the Stage,” they’re topping themselves every album.
Their new album, “The King is Dead” is so different musically that it’s no different at all. It’s stripped down. It’s simple. The longest track isn’t even six minutes, and most come in at around three. Because there comes a time when the challenge is no longer excess but restraint; when the bigger risk is one of style not size.
“Here we come to a turning of the season,” is the first lyric out of the gate, setting the tone for the album’s lyrical and musical themes. The whole thing has a more American folk feel, and I love how thoroughly a sense of place dominates the album, in that first song, “Don’t Carry It All,” – my favorite track on the album, it perfectly marries the focus on setting with an abundant declaration of the purposes of community – and later in the album on June Hymn.
I love how different “The King Is Dead” is from anything they’ve done before, and yet how comfortably it fits into their canon. There were slight shades of it toward the end of “The Hazards of Love,” the songs alternate between brawlers and bawlers (to borrow a bit from Tom Waits). Songs like “Calamity Song,” “Rox in the Box,” “This is Why We Fight,” and another favorite of mine, “All Arise!” really move and have a propulsion to them; and the “Hymns,” and something like “Rise to Me” remind you how at ease Colin Meloy’s lyrics are, how like a blanket by a fire during a rainstorm the songs feel. Few songs I’ve heard capture the feeling of a season and place – on the earth and in life – like these. They go to different, unique places you don’t normally hear about. And then hey what is “Dear Avery” anyway? Is it about a dog? I think maybe it is but I don’t know.
The concert was wonderful, of course. They dipped into every album and even an EP, and they played seven of the ten tracks from the new one. This may be the first time I didn’t hear “O Valencia,” and it was nice to know they had enough that they didn’t have to.
Here’s the breakdown (by album, not order):
Castaways and Cutouts: “Grace Cathedral Hill”
Her Majesty, The Decemberists: “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” and “Red Right Ankle”
Picaresque: “We Both Go Down Together,” “16 Military Wives,” “The Engine Driver,” and to close the first encore “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”
The Crane Wife: “The Crane Wife 3”
Always the Bridesmaid EP: “Days of Elaine”
The Hazards of Love: “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In the Taiga)” and c’mon of course “The Rake’s Song”
The King Is Dead: “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” “Rise to Me,” “Rox In the Box,” “Down By the Water,” “June Hymn,” and “This Is Why We Fight”
You know, I’ve said it before and it should perhaps just become my raison d’etre but there’s nothing better than listening to great music with a pretty girl. There were some sightline issues to figure out, but just being able to hold someone’s hand during songs I love is for me an ultimate luxury and comfort.
Just before they played their eight-minute ode to sailors and revenge, Colin told the crowd to practice screaming like they were being eaten by a whale, and as everyone yelled like banshees, I hear Ashley go, “What in the world?” Like I said, she’s relatively new to the music, but soon she followed suit, joined in, and bellowed like a pro. And then what a great final moment it was when they all came back onstage for a second encore to play just and only “June Hymn.” The disparity between the two songs could not have been greater, and it was perhaps a knowing nod to the fact that both are a part of the band’s appeal: the brazenly complex and the utterly simple.
And above all it’s really really great music.