Earlier this year, in the before times of ancient February, The Decemberists announced that they’d be hitting the road to celebrate 20 years together as a band. That prospective tour has, of course, been postponed—we’ll have to wait until next summer at the absolute earliest to find out how the premier Ren Faire troubadours of indie rock plan on celebrating this significant anniversary. But the safe bet would be: extravagantly. Props will probably be deployed. Sing-alongs will surely be encouraged. An unfinished ditty about Dracula’s daughter may well be dusted off for the purposes of self-deprecation. Almost certainly, a giant paper-mâché whale will make an appearance. Giving history its proper due is sort of this band’s whole raison d’être. Is there any reason to think they wouldn’t pull out all theatrical stops for their own history?
It’s a flair for the dramatic, that penchant for treating every concert hall like the Globe (or maybe just like the auditorium of Rushmore Academy), that’s made The Decemberists such a popular live act. But all the community-theater gimmickry—the dress-up and crowd work and nautical showmanship—is icing on the Victorian cake. The real drama is baked right into the music itself. On stage, as on record, the Decemberists songbook is a short story volume as thick as the collected works of Dickens or Dostoevsky, its pages populated by a teeming ensemble of cannibal kings, forest queens, orphans, concubines, legionnaires, barrow boys, chimbley sweeps, widows, vagabonds, and mariners. To paraphrase one of the band’s quintessential ballads, The Decemberists were meant for the stage. But they were raised in the library.
Formed at the turn of the millennium, when Colin Meloy moved to Portland and met multi-instrumentalists Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, and Nate Query, The Decemberists sounded out of step and out of time from the jump: an anachronism of bohemian kitsch. Meloy—who would become the band’s bookish frontman and main lyricist—came from a family of writers and brought a hyper-literate sensibility. In addition to his archaic wordplay and pronunciation, he crafted story-songs occasionally so dense in reference that they cried out for both footnotes and CliffsNotes. His nasally croon caught endless comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, but his influences ran wider and deeper: to Dylan Thomas and Herman Melville, to Marcel Duchamp and Edward Gorey, to Slavic myth and Japanese folklore. And whereas many of the era’s rising stars were “retro” mostly in their ’70s guitar-rock worship, here was a band that reached back much further, to the battlefields, palaces, and vast verandas of centuries past.
They built a fanbase fast. Just three years after the release of their debut LP, the lilting and sad Castaways And Cutouts, The Decemberists were headlining the first Pitchfork Music Festival. With the acclaim came skepticism and derision: There were plenty who rolled their eyes (and still do) at Meloy’s five-dollar words and his band’s dorky pirate-ship cosplay. (In a genre that sometimes prizes cool over all else, The Decemberists are unabashedly uncool—the theater kids crashing prom to a chorus of boos.) At times, the group’s style has threatened to harden into a shtick; by the time they slapped their name on a board game, it had certainly become a brand. That’s probably at least partially why recent records have deviated from that playbill, setting the Old English dictionary and dusty tomes of forgotten fables and seafaring anecdotes back on the shelf.
Yet to focus only on the storybook presentation, as diehards and detractors alike sometimes do, is to deny the force of the storytelling. Meloy, for all his affectations of tongue and dress, can weave a yarn brilliantly; 18-minute Celtic sagas aside, he actually has quite the gift for brevity, and can build a whole narrative in our heads from just a few evocative turns of phrase. Likewise, getting hung up on the frills does a disservice to the songcraft—the emotive power of Meloy’s delivery, the sophisticated employment of exotic sounds and instruments by his bandmates, the whole collective’s way with a hook. And while the early material fits rather snugly into a baroque-folk wheelhouse, the band’s musical vocabulary has gradually expanded to match their linguistic one, adding funk, Britpop, doo-wop, ’70s prog, stoner metal, Americana, R.E.M.-grade guitar rock, and—most recently—synth pop to the repertoire.
Only some of those sounds are represented on the 60-minute song sampler that follows. Though culled from almost the entirety of the Decemberists oeuvre (the recent and uncertain I’ll Be Your Girl is the lone LP omitted), this playlist heavily favors the band’s first decade. Likewise, those seeking an overview of their experiments in duration won’t find them here; only one of the selected songs extends past the six-minute mark. Finally, and to that point, we have neglected to include what’s arguably the reigning fan favorite of the Decemberists canon: sea shanty and audience-participation staple “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which is lots of fun but also nine minutes long and—blasphemy alert—not among their very best. Anyway, if you’re new to this band, you’re going to want to hear (and see!) that one on stage, whenever Meloy and company can return to it. There’s a whale involved and all.
One of the earliest Decemberists songs didn’t start as one. Meloy recorded “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist” with his first band, the country-leaning Tarkio, while taking creative writing classes at the University Of Montana. It sounds, nonetheless, like a mission statement for the group he’d form just a year later. Nestled into the middle of the (misleadingly named) debut EP 5 Songs, and freshly augmented with a nostalgic whine of accordion, the track finds Meloy spinning a multi-generational history, the narrator recounting how his parents met and eventually gambled him away. There’s a making-it-up-as-he-goes-along quality to the faux biography, reportedly inspired by a hellish family vacation that got the singer daydreaming about a more interesting upbringing. He’d sharpen his storytelling on the albums that followed, but many of Meloy’s hallmarks appear here first, from the thesaurus-friendly terminology to the cast of outsized characters, including gymnasts, resistance fighters, harlots, communists, and—most notably, for these aficionados of the life aquatic—a blind brigadier with a vast knowledge of yardarms.
For a band that’s invested so heavily in the lost art of the album—in delivering records, in other words, that play best as a cohesive whole, even when they consist entirely of vignettes—The Decemberists are no slouches at delivering an irresistible standalone, a lead single for the hoi polloi. And they surely needed one to anchor The Crane Wife, their first album after decamping to Capitol. “O Valencia!” rises spectacularly to the occasion, riding peppy earworm guitar to one of their most rousingly memorable choruses. But there’s no compromise to the band’s values and downbeat themes in the actual content of the tune, a modern gloss on the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, part of what makes the song such a winning addition to any setlist is the tension between the bright sheen of the production and the dark turn of events described. As Meloy bellowed of Valencia (the city or his slain love, it’s never clarified), fans breathed a sigh of relief that success hadn’t yet spoiled him.
Soldiers figure prominently into the Decemberists discography: wandering foreign landscapes, fighting for lost causes, pining for a homecoming they may not live to see. But the best of these odes to the infantry is the one that finds joy, not despair, in the trenches. Over a steady strum and a whimsical tinkle, Meloy sings of a burgeoning attraction between two brothers in arms, relishing the innuendoes (presumably phallic riffles “blaze away”) and wrapping his lips suggestively around words like “pantaloons.” But just when you think the song might amount to little more than a cheeky salute to homoeroticism in the military, the chorus hits, romantically inflating the feelings passing between these besotted grunts huddled close on the battlefield. By the arrival of horns at the grand finale, their love—probably taboo, possibly unspoken and unconsummated—swells as triumphantly as the crowds on V Day.
At under three minutes, “July, July!” has to be among the shortest songs in the Decemberists catalog. It sticks out against the more somber, reflective tales on Castaways And Cutouts, which established the general flavor and aesthetic of the band (down to the appearance of a massive ship on the cover, illustrated by Carson Ellis, who was dating and is now married to Meloy) without quite anticipating the up-tempo playfulness of future work. Truthfully, though, few of the more fanciful toe-tappers Meloy would write in the years to come can compete with the organ-abetted festiveness of this one, which maintains its bouncy pleasures on stage, even after 18 years of run-throughs. It’s also delightfully morbid for such a catchy song, its lyrics tilting towards entrails (“his guts were all suspended in his fingers”) and spectral poultry (“And the chickens how they rattle chicken chains”).
When Meloy looks to real life for inspiration, he usually reaches very far back; if an event can be called “recent” by any stretch of the imagination, he’s probably not dramatizing it—which makes “Valerie Plame” an exuberant outlier. Released as part of the singles series Always The Bridesmaid, this cheery pop confection recounts the 2003 retaliatory outing of the eponymous CIA agent from the first-person perspective of one of her contacts, confessing his affection for the spy he escorted from the “green zone Marriott” on his Vespa. Romance among operatives is a favored subject of the songwriter—one could, indeed, call this a more lighthearted and fact-based companion to his earlier “The Bagman’s Gambit”—but the tone here is tongue-in-cheek, especially when “Valerie Plame” transforms, in its final stretch, into a full-blown parody of “Hey Jude.” Still, Meloy can’t help but locate some genuine emotion in his ripped-from-the-headlines material: The bridge, in which this unnamed confidant learns the truth from a TV screen, is among the band’s most stirring.
The twin pinnacles of Colin Meloy’s songwriting career sit back to back on one album, in direct conversation with each other. “The Engine Driver,” from 2005’s Picaresque, starts like a callback to “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” with Meloy running through a series of professions he’s only occupied in his imagination. But then the veil drops, as he confesses what he really is: a “writer of fictions,” churning out “pages upon pages” to purge his heartbreak over an unrequited romance. Even on its own terms, it’s enormously poignant—a stealth confessional from an artist who normally avoids confession, offering an explanation as to why he seems to write from every perspective except his own. But the true masterstroke is the way the song fades seamlessly into the album’s shimmering highpoint, “On The Bus Mall,” in which Meloy unfurls one of his most empathetic narratives, the chronicle of two teenage sex workers finding solace in each other’s friendship. Through their proximity to each other, the songs balloon with new meaning, making the case for getting personal in a roundabout way—for channeling your true self through fiction.
“We had to change some,” Meloy croons on “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” the opening track of The Decemberists’ most middle-of-the-road record. This fourth-wall-breaking pronouncement was the frontman’s way of admitting that his band had shed qualities that fans loved, from the allusions to the ambitious song structures. But while most of What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World makes a quiet argument against so-called artistic evolution, at least one track gives the more streamlined, less gloriously nerdy Decemberists a good name: Craftily sequenced right after Meloy’s mea culpa, “Cavalry Captain” is three-plus minutes of bittersweet fanfare, the singer belting romantic overtures to the triumphant accompaniment of a horn section. Annotaters will have to settle for an offhand nod to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge Of The Light Brigade,” but the song’s infectious appeal towers as tall as the seafaring vessels The Decemberists may be over now.
Like “O Valencia!,” this other tale of star-crossed amour draws power from the uneasy relationship between its music and lyrics. But it’s an even trickier subversion. Recounting the double suicide of two young lovers of opposite social station, the song frames its story in the melodramatic terms its unreliable narrator might prefer, through achingly operatic strings and Meloy’s impassioned delivery. But parse the words more closely and a less romantic interpretation appears between the cracks of the character’s account: the story of a spoiled rich kid plucking some desperate girl out of poverty, taking what he wants from her (“You wept but your soul was willing”), and pressuring her into throwing her life away because his parents wouldn’t approve of him marrying her. Tragic on a level its main character can’t or won’t see, “We Both Go Down Together” strengthens the case that Picaresque is The Decemberists’ richest record—the moment when everything just clicked for them, the storytelling tightening with the musicianship.
Often overshadowed by the grandiose arrangements and florid language is Meloy’s talent for a simple, sweet melody. Rarely has it been on better display than in this stripped-down gem from the band’s breakthrough second album, Her Majesty, The Decemberists. Armed with an acoustic guitar, the songwriter pays tribute to a less commonly heralded highlight of anatomy, tying together descriptions of the titular limb into a love story for his wife-to-be (reportedly penned after a big fight between them). Meloy being Meloy, he can’t quite resist inserting a cameo appearance by Ellis’ “gypsy uncle,” or cleverly switching between a physical and figurative use of the heart. But “Red Right Ankle” still feels about as emotionally direct as he’s allowed himself to be in front of a microphone—and the song’s minimalism remains a nice change of pace within a body of work ornately decorated in more ways than one.
After years of flirting with the excesses of prog and the self-indulgence of the old-school concept record, The Decemberists finally fulfilled their destiny to inflict a full-blown rock opera on the world. The Hazards Of Love, their divisive wade into album-length fantasy, is really too monolithic a work to fit the Power Hour parameters; we’d need a solid three to five songs, one flowing into the next, to capture the full D&D vibe of this very… extra achievement. Only “The Rake’s Song” is easily excised, mostly because it already functions as a narrative detour: a quick aside from one of the album’s villains, who regales us with how he killed his own children (!!!) to revert to carefree bachelorhood. Still, even without the thunderbolts of Chris Funk’s electric riffing and appearances by various guest stars, the song’s unplugged heavy-metal stomp and snarled chorus convey some of Hazard’s lumbering hesher spirit. It will take a listen to the full behemoth of an album, though, to get the payoff of The Rake’s inadvertent foreshadowing: “Bet you think that I should be haunted...”
There was room for just one jumbo-screen Decemberists epic on this list, and with apologies to the Youth And Beauty Brigade, The Tain, and that terrifying trip to the belly of a whale, it had to be “The Crane Wife.” Technically, the title track off the band’s leap to the big-label big leagues is two tracks; part three—a lovely denouement—eccentrically opens the album in media res, allowing Meloy and company to work their way back to the start of the story. But it’s the two-part medley completing the arc that demonstrates the beauty this band can conjure with some extra breathing room. Based on a Japanese folktale about a peasant who marries a shape-shifting bird, “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” builds and builds, from the softly plucked strings of its scene-setting first minutes to the full-band crescendo of melancholic chamber pop it ends on. Most remarkably, Meloy finds the tender soul at the center of his ancient, recounted fable. “It rakes at my heart,” he cries in the powerhouse finale. Ours too.
On The Hazards Of Love, The Decemberists pushed their obsession with intricate, overblown story-songs to its logical endpoint. What could they possibly do for an encore? The answer was cleanse their palates with a lean, sturdy, and tuneful Americana record, one without anything in the way of an overarching theme or Dickensian cast of oddballs. The King Is Dead, a title hinting at a more permanent shift in priorities than what fans might have guessed, scored The Decemberists their first No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and effectively paved the way for the tidier, less flamboyant albums they’ve put out since. But it’s hard to hold that against songs this pleasing—especially the opening track, “Don’t Carry It All,” a harmonica-driven anthem from a band gracefully aging into its second chapter. If they cut more this high in caliber, we can forgive them keeping their feet on dry land, with nary an armada nor leviathan in sight.