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by The Decemberists

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The Infanta 05:07
Here she comes in her palanquin On the back of an elephant On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk All astride (on her father's line) With the King and his Concubine And her nurse with her pitchers of liquors and milk And we'll all come praise the Infanta And we'll all come praise the Infanta Among five score pachyderm All canopied and passenger'd Sit the Duke and the Duchess's luscious young girls Within site of the Baroness Seething spite for this lithe largess By her side sits the Baron - her barren-ness barbs her Chorus A phalanx on camel back! Thirty ranks on a forward tack Follow close, their shiny bright standards a-waving! While behind in their coach-and-fours Ride the wives of the King of Moors And the veiled young virgin, the Prince's betrothed. Chorus And as she sits upon her place Her innocence laid on her face From atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets Melodies rhapsodical and fair! And all our hearts afire, the sky ablaze with cannon fire, We raise our voices to the air To the air. And above all this folderol On a bed made of chaparral She is laid, a coronal placed on her brow. 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. Chorus
Here on these cliffs of Dover So high, you can't see over And while your head is spinning Hold tight, it's just the beginning. You come from parents wanton A childhood rough and rotten I come from wealth and beauty Untouched by work or duty And O! My Love! My Love! And O! My Love! My Love! We both go down together! I found you, a tattoo'd tramp A dirty daughter from the labor camp I laid you down in the grass of a clearing You wept, but your soul was willing Chorus Meet me on my vast veranda My sweet untouched Miranda And while the seagulls are crying We fall but our souls are flying! Chorus
Eli, the barrow boy of the old town Sells coal and marigolds And he cries out all down the day Below the tamaracks he is crying, "Corncobs and candlewax for the buying!" All down the day "Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe Made of gold and silk Arabian thread But she is dead and gone and lying in a pine grove And I must push my barrow all the day. And I must push my barrow all the day." Eli, the barrow boy - when they found him Dressed all in corduroy he had drowned in The river down the way. They laid his body down in the church yard But still when the moon is out With his push cart he calls down the day: "Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown Made of gold and silk Arabian thread But I am dead and gone and lying in a church ground But still I push my barrow all the day Still I push my barrow all the day"
I fell on the playing field The work of an errant heel The din of the crowd and the loud commotion Went deafening silent and stopped in motion The season was almost done We'd managed it twelve to one So far I had known no humiliation In front of my friends and close relations But there's my father looking on And there's my girlfriend arm and arm With the captain of the other team and all of this is clear to me They condescend to fix on me a frown How they love the sporting life! And father had had such hopes For a son who would take the ropes And fulfill all his old athletic aspirations But apparently now there's some complications But while I am lying here Trying to fight the tears I'll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger (Though I think I might lie here a little longer.) 'Cause there's my coach-- he's looking down The disappointment in his knitted brow "I should've known," he thinks again. "I never should've put him in." He turns to load the lemonade away And breathes in deep the sporting life. Rpt. First Chorus
How could I refuse a favor or two And for a tryst in the greenery I gave you documents and microfilm too. And from my ten-floor tenement Where once our bodies lay How I long to hear you say "No they'll never catch me now No they'll never catch me No they cannot catch me now We will escape somehow." It was late one night I was awoken by the telephone I heard a strangled cry on the end of the line Purloined in Petrograd They were suspicious of where your loyalties lay So I paid off a bureaucrat To convince your captors there to secret you away And at the gate of the embassy Our hands met through the bars As your whisper stilled my heart: "No they'll never catch me now No they'll never catch me No they cannot catch me now We will escape somehow." And I dreamt one night You were there in form Hands held high In uniform. It was ten years on when you resurfaced in a motorcar And with a wave of an arm you were there and gone.
Four score years, living down in this rain-swept town Sea-salt tears swimming round as the rain comes down Mr. Postman, do you have a letter for me? Mr. Postman, do you have a letter for me? A letter for me From my own true love, lost at sea Lost at sea.
16 military wives, 32 softly focused, brightly colored eyes Staring at the natural tan of 32 gently clenching wrinkled little hands 17 company men, out of which only 12 will make it back again Sergeant sends a letter to 5 military wives as tears drip down from 10 little eyes. Cheer them on to their rivals Because America can and America can't say no And America does if America says it's so. And the anchor person on TV goes "na na na na na na na na na" 15 celebrity minds, leading their 15 sordid, wretched, checkered lives Will they find the solution in time using their 15 pristine moderate liberal minds? 18 Academy chairs, out of which only 7 really even care Doling out a garland to 5 celebrity minds, they're humbly taken by surprise. Chorus 14 cannibal kings, wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring 15 celebrity minds, served on a leafy bed of 16 military wives Chorus
I'm an engine driver On a long run, on a long run Would I were beside her She's a long one, such a long one And if you don't love me let me go And if you don't love me let me go I'm a county lineman On the high line, on the high line So will be my grandson There are powerlines in our bloodline. And if you don't love me let me go And if you don't love me let me go And I am writer, a writer of fictions I am the heart that you call home And I've written pages upon pages Trying to rid you from my bones. I'm a moneylender I have fortunes upon fortunes Take my hand for tender I am tortured, ever tortured And if you don't love me let me go And if you don't love me let me go Chorus
In matching blue raincoats our shoes were our showboats We kicked around From stairway to station we made a sensation With the gadabout crowd And Oh what a bargain! We're two easy targets For the old men in the off-tracks Who paid in palaver and crumpled old dollars Which we squirreled away In our rat-trap hotel by the freeway And we slept in Sundays. Your parents were anxious, your cool was contagious At the old school You left without leaving a note for your grieving Sweet mother while your brother was so cruel. But here in the alleys your spirits were rallied As you learned quick to make a fast buck In bathrooms and barrooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms We bit our tongues, Sucked our lips into our lungs 'til we were falling Such was our calling And here in our hovel we fused like a family But I will not mourn for you So take up your makeup and pocket your pills away We're kings among runaways On The Bus Mall Down on The Bus Mall. Among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants Of the old town We reigned at the pool hall with one iron cue ball And we never let the bastards get us down And we laughed off the quick tricks. The old men with limp dicks On the colonnades of the waterfront park As four in the morning came on cold and boring We huddled close in the bus stop enclosure, enfolding Our hands tightly holding Chorus
We are two mariners, our ship's sole survivors In this belly of a whale Its ribs our ceiling beams, its guts our carpeting I guess we have some time to kill You may not remember me - I was a child of three And you a lad of eighteen But I remember you and I will relate to you How our histories interweave At the time you were a rake and a roustabout Spending all your money on the whores and hounds You had a charming air all cheap and debonair That my widowed mother found so sweet And so she took you in - her sheets still warm with him Now filled with filth and foul disease As time wore on you proved a debt-ridden drunken mess Leaving my mother a poor consumptive wretch And then you disappeared. Your gambling arrears The only thing you left behind And then the magistrate reclaimed our small estate And my poor mother lost her mind. Then one day in spring my dear sweet mother died But before she did I took her hand as she dying cried: "Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole And break his fingers to splinters Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked Clawing at the ceiling of his grave!" It took me fifteen years to swallow all my tears Among the urchins in the streets Until a priory took pity and hired me To keep their vestry nice and neat. But never once in the employ of these holy men Did I ever once turn my mind from the thought of revenge! One night I overheard the prior exchanging words With a penitent whaler from the sea The captain of his ship, who matched you toe to tip, Was known for a wanton cruelty. The following day I shipped to sea with a privateer In the whistle of the wind I could almost hear: Chorus There is one thing I might say to you As you sail across the sea Always your mother will watch over you As you avenge this wicked deed And then that fateful night we had you in our sight After twenty months at sea With your starboard flank abeam, I was getting my muskets clean When came this rumbling from beneath. The ocean shook, the sky went black, and the captain quailed And before us grew the angry jaws of a giant whale! I don't know how I survived - the crew was chewed alive I must've slipped between his teeth But O! what providence, what divine intelligence! That you should survive as well as me. It gives my heart great joy to see your eyes fill with fear So lean in close and I will whisper the last words you'll hear: Chorus
There are angels in your angles There's a low moon caught in your tangles There's a ticking at the sill There's a purr of a pigeon to break the still of day As on we go drowning Down we go away And darling, we go a-drowning Down we go away There's a tough word on your crossword There's a bedbug nipping a finger There's a swallow, there's a calm Here's a hand to lay on your open palm today As on we go drowning Down we go away And darling, we go a-drowning Down we go away There are angels in your angles There's a low moon caught in your tangles


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 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.

Jim Roll
Ypsilanti, MI
December 2004


released March 22, 2005


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