How I Got Into….The Decemberists


Several posts ago I talked about how I got into Joni Mitchell, thanks to the free CD on the cover of a magazine.

The same thing happened with The Decemberists.

They were just one of several bands I’d never heard of who were featured in the cover CD of whichever magazine it was (probably The Word). The track was The Shankhill Butchers, taken from The Decemberists’ 2006 album The Crane Wife, and (another theme of these posts) it was interesting enough to send me off to Spotify to listen to the rest of the album. Which I immediately loved.

The Decemberists are a band from Portland, Oregon, fronted by singer-songwriter Colin Meloy, who fall roughly under the “Indie Folk” label. But they’re more difficult than that to categorise – there’s prog rock (Jenny Conlee’s keyboards on The Island sound a lot like Keith Emerson), there’s pop, there’s musical theatre (check out The Mariner’s Revenge Song).

They provide a great live experience, brilliantly attuned to their audience, and always thoroughly entertaining.

I like bands who are serious about their music, but don’t take themselves too seriously, and The Decemberists are the embodiment of that attitude. The songs are well-crafted, the musicianship is excellent, but there’s a knowing smile in much of it. Often it’s the juxtaposition of subject and tune – many of the songs feature characters who die, often in violent circumstances, but the tunes are never downbeat, with a black humour sitting behind it all. Must be that Portland weirdness.

Of all the posts in this series, this was the most difficult to select links for – I’ve been back and forth and up and down the list so many times, trying to find songs that illustrate what I like about this band, what would make people who were coming to them for the first time get the idea.

Colin Meloy

Colin Meloy at the launch of “What a Terrible World…”

I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but if any of this catches your interest do go and listen to The Crane Wife, or Picaresque, or The King Is Dead, or What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World (probably not The Hazards Of Love, though, at least not first – Wikipedia’s description: “The Hazards of Love tells the tale of a woman named Margaret; her shape-shifting lover, William; his fey forest queen mother; and a cold-blooded, lascivious rake, who recounts with spine-chilling ease how he came “to be living so easy and free” in “The Rake’s Song””).

So here are some links – I know there are more than usual but the list could have been many times longer. I hope this inspires you to look further into this band and spread the word, and you really should go to see them live.

Make You Better, with an appearance from Nick Offerman as the creepy host of an 80s-style German rock show. Not taking themselves too seriously.

Eli The Barrow-Boy, which illustrates the contrast between what’s a really nice tune and a very tragic story (just the two deaths here, though, so quite restrained by The Decemeberists’ standards).

The Mariner’s Revenge Song, great theatrics in a song. A callous lover, an abandoned mother, a giant whale, and a tale of revenge. Often used to close a live show, with audience participation as the doomed ships’ crews.

Lake Song. Just chose this because it’s rather lovely, especially Jenny Conlee’s piano, and I love the line “seventeen and terminally fey”.

We Both Go Down Together, another great chorus in the midst of a tale of a doomed, abusive relationship ending in joint suicide. But how can you not love a song with the lyric “Meet me on my vast verandah, my sweet untouched Miranda”? I think sometimes he writes these things for the challenge (or for a bet).

Sons And Daughters, selected by my wife for this list, and rightly so. Colin Meloy says he wrote this when he’d learned his first two chords on the bouzouki. It’s got bouzouki. It’s got accordian. It’s got the word “dirigible”. And it’s got a tune that everyone can sing along to.

decemberists live

If you’ve read this far down this post, thank you. Sons And Daughters is the final track on The Crane Wife, and a brilliant way to close an album.

And it’s also the way I’m closing this series of posts.

This will be the last of these weekly “How I Got Into….” posts, though there may be occasional ones in the future if I think there’s something worth sharing and a story to go with it.

Thanks for reading, and particularly for the nice comments that you’ve all left over the past few months. I hope you found something here you liked.

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2 Responses to How I Got Into….The Decemberists

  1. calensariel says:

    Will have to come back when I have time to listen, but it struck me reading this how many great bands there are all over who never make it to the spotlight. So many talented people in the world… Nice post, Howard.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyed this post, and thank you for bringing this new listener to The Decemberists! I especially loved The Mariner’s Revenge! Still have to go through the other tunes!

    Liked by 1 person

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