The Decemberists know that the psychology of a culture at war is complex; that historical archetypes can inform the masses on current events far better than the evening news; and, perhaps most importantly, that life is ultimately a spectacular and colorful pageant. They remind us that, on any given day, we might rub shoulders with rogue spies and runaway prostitutes, child monarchs and vengeful mariners, boy ghosts, couples contemplating suicide, cannibals and drowning angels. This existence is indeed a spectacle to be revered.
In August of 2004, Rachel Blumberg, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Colin Meloy, and Nate Query set up shop at a former Baptist church in Portland, Oregon. With co-producer Chris Walla at the controls, the five musicians collectively known as The Decemberists emerged three weeks later with the bulk of the work completed for Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars - March 22, 2005), their most ambitious and realized effort to date.
“On the surface it could be seen as somewhat ambitious,” relates singer, guitarist and lyricist Colin Meloy, “I mean, in rock mythology you have Led Zeppelin recording in castles and other such tales… but there is a really nice simplicity to just setting up in the chapel of a church. It’s just one wide-open space. It feels less clinical and time-constrained than a formal studio.”
Harnessing the airy spaciousness of the temporary Baptist church studio, Picaresque has an aural similarity to Castaways and Cutouts, their widely heralded debut album. Hush Records originally released Castaways and Cutouts in 2002 and Kill Rock Stars re-issued it in 2003, the same year they released Her Majesty the Decemberists, the band’s second full-length CD. The Decemberists have two adventurous EPs to their credit as well: 5 Songs (Hush, 2003), which actually contains six songs; and The Tain (2004, on the Spanish label Acuarela Discos), an 18-minute EP based on an eighth century Celtic poem.
The Decemberists really hit their stride while working on The Tain, their first project with Chris Walla. Walla is probably best known as the guitarist & keyboard player in the band Death Cab for Cutie. “By the time we completed Picaresque, it was obvious to us all that the band had been functioning as a very tight intuitive unit for some time.” notes Meloy. “In many ways, this recording process felt effortless, and I think a lot of that started with The Tain. That was a great experience because it allowed us to experiment with arrangements in a low pressure setting. I think it opened our eyes to a new way of working, which we applied to the performances on this new record.”
Indeed, Picaresque explodes confidently into form on the first track “The Infanta.” Colin Meloy’s lyric gloriously paints the spectacle of a Portuguese child princess’s coronation. Sonically, Rachel Blumberg relentlessly announces the proceedings with a powerful rolling drum beat that does not cease until the Kings and Concubines and Elephants and Phalanxes and Virgins and Camels and Baronesses have all paid their respects to the child monarch.
These are the types of characters and events that appear throughout a Colin Meloy penned soundscape. “I admire Robyn Hitchcock for having created a world that is very cohesive from song to song but doesn’t necessarily read as too much of a map. Ultimately he sets up his own set of rules, and I would aspire to do the same thing.”
Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk introduces a virtual army of traditional instruments in order to accentuate the Picaresque aural landscape alongside the myriad characters that populate the songs. “Chris Funk brought a lot to this record with regard to instrumentation.” notes Meloy. “Notably the hammer dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy…, which he picked up for these sessions. As well as the saz (a Turkish bazooki-like instrument) and banjo…” Jenny Conlee provides The Decemberists’ definitive Hammond organ and accordion textures and Nate Query handles the bass duties. Additionally, when appropriate, band members contributed parts using every instrument at their disposal. The list of guest musicians includes, to name a few, Petra Haden on violin and vocals and Paul Brainard, Joe Cunningham and Tom Hill on various brass instruments.
There is the pageantry and then there are the lovelorn. Colin Meloy achingly sings out “My Love, My Love” to an infectious melody in “We Both Go Down Together”. It is the story of a rags-and- riches dual suicide. “Eli The Barrow Boy” is the tale of a heartbroken perpetual boy ghost. And the theme of complicated love finds another home in “The Bagman’s Gambit,” where international spies mourn their elusive romance in the shadow of embassies and capitol buildings. The sparse lament “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” approaches Haiku in its succinct elegance. The narrator of “Engine Driver” yearns for release from romantic obsession first from the perspective of an engine driver, then as a county lineman, a fiction writer and finally a money lender.
“A lot of the characters do have hidden or forbidden loves.” says Colin Meloy. “If you go back that is a common theme for me. I typically surround these characters with tragedy. And I tend to think there is no greater tragedy than a lost, forbidden, or unrequited love. I think that is what traditional folk music is based on… it’s based on a litany of loss. “
In “On the Bus Mall,” runaway prostitutes mourn their lost childhoods and guard each other like abandoned siblings. “The Sporting Life” is the deceptively complicated tale, set to an upbeat Motown drum and bass variation, of an injured soccer player in the aristocratic world of sport. And then there is “16 Military Wives”:
“The political environment also influenced the songwriting in creating the need to maybe go farther into my own head,” says Meloy. “The album has our first quasi-political song: “16 Military Wives.” That was written right before the invasion of Iraq and it explores how that event coincided with the Academy Awards. It deals with the war and the cult of celebrity. It’s the closest I have ever come to any sort of pop culture criticism... I think that overtly political songs tend to oversimplify situations. These are more complex issues than many reactionaries are painting them to be. All this sycophantic love for the approach of certain celebrity activists… there’s something quite absurd in that too. If you try to take a step back and remove yourself from the furor there is an absurdity in every corner of it, really. I mean, it wasn’t my intent to write a song that paints a single perspective.”
Meloy lights up at the mention of the epic “The Mariner’s Revenge,” which comes in at just under nine minutes. “We just set up a single microphone and recorded live around it. This approach gave it that natural room sound...you know that ‘Original Broadway Cast Recording Of’ kind of sound—like it’s on a stage. It took several takes, but we finally got it in the end and (laughs) you can tell that Jenny’s accordion playing was frenzied to a degree toward the end of the take that ended up on Picaresque. It was the very end of the tenth take and we just needed to get it right, and I think there is a very endearing frenzy to the performance. It was a lot of fun doing such an ambitious arrangement live. It was like doing theater: making sure that all of the parts were there and that everyone knew their parts. Then it was just a question of putting it all together. We kind of conducted each other.“
While their appreciation of community theater is evident in the album’s epic tale and playful jewelcase artwork, The Decemberists are not merely armed with wooden swords and felt skirts. Rather they confidently wield stories grounded in archetypes, transcendent musicianship, and a collective enthusiasm for an art form they have mastered. Like The Clash with their passionate streetwise politics 25 years ago, the effect of The Decemberists is one that challenges a culture resisting the prospect of its own mortality—a people that have become mesmerized by censured popular media outlets and political sound bites.
“The word ‘archetype’ has a negative connotation because it implies some sort of escapism or going back to anachronistic times,” says Meloy, “but I think that archetypes are important figures in a society. They are easily overlooked. The characters that populate the collective unconscious are an essential part of society’s fabric. They can speak directly to the current situation. I think you can educate yourself about current events by going back and looking at archetypes.”
In a political and social climate of fear and denial with regard to mortality, The Decemberists’ spirited recordings contribute to the majesty of this existence. Their approach to popular music celebrates the gifts couched in the tenuous nature of life. It is a glorious process that transcends organized religion and politics. Like the sweet lovers in the album’s final track, “Of Angels and Angles,” drowning together is not necessarily a tragedy. Death itself is inevitable, finding and being with one’s true love is not.
“That’s something I wrote a while ago. It’s quite a personal song,” remembers Colin Meloy. “It wasn’t ever really intended to be recorded. It’s one of those songs you write and you just want to keep for yourself. Once I decided to record it however it became an obvious choice with which to conclude Picaresque.“
The intimacy of the final track, “Of Angels and Angles,” sits in extreme contrast to the glorious chaos of “The Infanta” which opens the CD. Indeed, a return listen to “The Infanta” yields a certain amount of foreshadowing: after the pomp, circumstance, and the procession of royalty that is the bulk of “The Infanta,” Meloy reveals the heralded child monarch’s deepest desire in the midst of the decadent celebration:
“And the Babe all in slumber dreams
Of a place Filled with Quiet Streams
And the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water”
“So, hopefully, by the end of the record,” Colin Meloy concludes, “you will have taken some sort of journey that will lead you, in an authentic way, to that very simple moment.”
From spectacle to simplicity—that may not be the American Dream, but The Decemberists would have us believe it is most certainly our legacy and, if we are truly fortunate, our fate.
released 22 March 2005
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