One of my standards when it comes to music is how long it can keep me riveted and on repeat. I first heard Sixteen Military Wives playing at the Outcrop office* four full years ago, and with encouragement from S, I copied the Picaresque album. From then on, the Decemberists were one of the mainstays on my music player. It wasn’t until several months ago, however, when I realized just how much the Decemberists had to offer. Armed with a laptop and an iPod with 120 gigabytes of free space, I started updating the artists in my music library. Lo and behold, the Decemberists had managed to produce more than a handful of albums – and my fascination continued.
Range. California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade spans close to ten full minutes, but listening to the song feels as natural as the images of long straight highways on mythical Californian lands that I have never been to. Similar to the imagery of endless deserts, vineyards rife with California grapes, and a sun that unhurriedly rises and descends between a girl named Annabel and the narrator, the song takes its own sweet time in developing a calming ambience that all but prepares you for the next part of the song – the Youth and Beauty Brigade. At this point, the song takes an unexpected yet completely complementary turn towards the tale of a group of ‘cutouts and castaways’ who have freed themselves from ‘debts to society’ by paying their ‘overdue fines at the Multnomah County Library.’ There is no use questioning the sudden shift in the story, after having been subdued and softened by California One.
In California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade, the Decemberists hint at the range of emotions that their music can evoke. Laid back and unhurried one moment, the listener is softly if suddenly flung into a call for the marginalized to a sort of self-realization and self-acknowledgement in the form of the Youth and Beauty Brigade. From the lazy California sun and sweetly flowing California wine, the Brigade erupts as a subversion of social norms and constructs that have kept the misfits unfitting and unable to integrate into society. More importantly, the Brigade opens up possibility for the marginalized, a future for the unrecognized, a place for the misplaced – “Nothing will stand in our way.”
Wordplay, language, and lyrics. In a world where many of the popular musicians’ vocabulary have been reduced to ‘love,’ ‘boy,’ and ‘girl,’ Meloy’s lyrics provide a return to the forgotten poetry that was once presupposed in music. whether plucking terms and contexts from faraway lands such as in Constantinople and from historical events such as in When the War Came, or simply crocheting a story of a legionnaire lamenting about homesickness and a dehydrated land, Meloy’s language and lyrics evoke images, stories, emotions, and sometimes, a need for a dictionary. The wording in Cocoon is nothing short of cocooned, but combined with the music and Meloy’s voice, becomes something short of revelatory with each line. In Of Angels and Angles, the lyrics tell the story by jumping from one image to the next, which by themselves cannot stand, but taken as a whole, creates a dreamlike trance that creates a logic where drowning and going down away is an unquestionable conclusion.
Stories. Though the Decemberists are not the first to capitalize on stories woven into music, they have shown much effort and ambition in incorporating plots and tales into their songs. Whether talking about runaway prostitutes sleeping in on Sundays and constructing a family out of each other on the bus mall, athletes at the heart of defeat, soldiers finding life and love with fellow soldiers on the battlefield, or bandit queens and the people who love them, the Decemberists manage to tell tales without sounding like an auto tuned podcast. Clearly, not every musician can move beyond the typical stanza-chorus-refrain-stanza formula and into plot-based stories. The Decemberists, though, pull it off flawlessly. And with the Hazards of Love, the Decemberists managed to expand a fantastical plot about maidens who have fallen in love with wood creatures to cover not just one song, but an entire album.
With almost ten albums, a number of collaborations and interpretations, an attempt to sum up the Decemberists is nothing short of gargantuan a challenge. Just as the narrator can forgive a son forced to leave his mother out in the woods in I Don’t Mind, I trust that the Decemberists won’t mind if my accolade ends here.