The King is Dead
Well, with this, their sixth full-length album release, Colin Meloy and the Decemberists seem to be at a musical and artistic crossroads. As has been documented elsewhere, recently- it is the intent of Meloy and the band to “take a break,” explore other projects, try other things, blah blah blah.
It is not apparent whether the Decembrist’s contract with Capitol was a five-record or three-record deal. One gets the impression it must be a three-record deal, as most record companies would have a major solid gold cow if one of their acts decided to hiatus in the middle of their contract. Especially riding a hit album like this should turn out to be. Cue the Greatest Hits package.
But what’s strange is- it would seem that their most recent previous release, The Hazards of Love from May of ‘09, was truly the final Decemberists album, not this one. While there are a few songs here that bear the characteristics of former Decemberists recordings, most don’t. Oh, it’s obvious that Meloy wrote and sings the songs. Pretty hard to hide that, unless he were to sing everything in falsetto, in Spanish. Even then…
No, what we have here is essentially a Colin Meloy solo album, with benefits. This sounds more like a follow-up to Colin Meloy Sings Live! (2008 live solo album) than a true Decemberists album. Stripped down? I guess so!
It’s not that the other members are absent. They’re in the mix alright. But certain changes have taken place- most of them in Meloy. His songwriting, the songs’ arrangements, even their musical reference points have shifted pretty dramatically.
Whereas in former days we grew to know and love our young Colin and the band as purveyors of strange old British folk tales, steeped in imaginary history and a certain odd sort of whimsy. The anachronistic absurdity of their entire thesis was the foremost feature of their allure. Who but Colin Meloy would aspire to be the Edmund Spenser of the 21st century?
But here, the perspective has shifted- attributable in part to the vocal presence, on seven of the ten tunes, of Americana songstress, Gillian Welch; and the visitation on three numbers by noted guitarist Peter Buck of Tuatura. No, uh, REM.
REM. That’s a good jumping off point. Colin has chucked his 19th century British nautical/military melancholia for 20th century Americana folk revival. A strange, but no doubt necessary artistic decision. The Crane Wife flew away. William and Margaret are happily married, busy begatting little pebbles of their own.
It is the good old American harmonica that sounds the clarion call on this album. Loud blaring harmonica- like Bob Dylan. Like Neil Young. In fact, keep those seminal Folk-rootsists in mind. We’ll be returning to them later.
When last we left the Decemberists, William the wounded white fawn and Margaret, the rustic country girl, had set up shop as rocks in a river after a rigorous adventure that involved all sorts of evil-doing. The mayhem was initiated, primarily, at the behest of William’s wicked Queen mum and carried out by her malevolent ward, that nasty Rake (who got his in the end when his murdered kids came back to haunt him), whom she hired to screw things up. Because, she saw young Will as a good bet to “marry up” in station- and she was not about to allow him to blow it all on some rustic country girl.
So, as we resume the tale here, there’s no sign of Bill or Meg. Instead, with “Don’t Carry It All” we are gently crossing the Willamette on the Cripple Creek Ferry, headin’ out Happy Valley way, where the good life lies. Joey Moen’s big-beat, stripped down kick and snare support Colin’s acoustic guitar and resoundingly reedy harmonica. Flourishes of Nate Query’s ba-wooming bass and faint fiddle by Annalisa Tornfelt add texture. However the lyric is no less inscrutable than you would expect.
“A monument to build beneath the arbors
Upon a plinth that towers t’wards the trees”
Okay. So good so far. Good to see that Colin hasn’t lost his penchant for two-dollar words. Plinth. Sure. One might picture a great marble temple, such as the Parthenon, being constructed in the majestic splendor of a wooded glen. But whoa, whoa, whoa!!
“Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard
Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees.”
So where are we? On some boat somewhere making a hard right on someone’s freckled knee? Now that’s an image that’s sort of hard to pull together. What happened to the Parthenon? Is it north of the freckled knees? But we’re bound to get this all straightened out soon.
“And there a wreath of trillium and ivy
Laid upon the body of a boy
Lazy will the loam come from its hiding
And return this quiet searcher to the soil”
It is not at all clear where this boy came from. Maybe he was on board the vessel? Or perhaps working on the temple? But he died. Oh, the Decemberists may be in the midst of evolving (or hibernating), but Collin Meloy will never completely change. Plinth. Yeah. Trillium and ivy.
Welch makes her presence known in a pleasant non-obtrusive way- as if she had been there in the mix all along. Buck may be playing a mandolin- but he is pretty much a wisp of smoke in the mix on this one.
Instrumentally, and this is going to be hard to feature, the arrangement of “Calamity Song” sort of reminds of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” Colin’s windy twelve-string acoustic, is joined by Moen’s chunky drums in a fashion similar to that of Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood. The song departs from there, riding Buck’s chiming electric guitar.
While we’re talkin’ ‘70s, “Rise to Me” has a Graham Parson’s meets Emmylou Harris quality about it- Chris Funk’s doleful steel guitar sliding wistfully behind bass and keys. Colin adds harp. Think of the Band. Neil Young’s Harvest. Colin’s stuff is still antique as a burnished brass bowl. It’s just of a more recent heritage. A good chorus. A well-built song.
And, “Rox in the Box” maintains the ‘70s as a reference point. I urge people to seek out the album: In Search of Amelia Earhart recorded in 1972 by the British folk musician Iain Matthews with his band Plainsong. The final cut on that album is called “Raider.”
“Raider” is not included in recent CD versions of the album, as Matthews didn’t write the song (written by the ‘60s folk duo Judy Henske and Jerry Yester) and so, apparently, acrimoniously dropped it from the set. Sad. However, vintage vinyl versions contain the song. Colin Meloy’s song “Rox in the Box” captures the American gothic spirit to be found on “Raider,” their Bluegrassy meets British folk elements are nicely interwoven between each of the two songs. Energetic.
Early Paul Simon comes to mind with the lovely “January Hymn.” Oddly, Jimmy Buffet’s “Tequila Sunrise” (“some people claim…“) is briefly quoted melodically before sliding neatly into a section parallel to Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” (with a hint of “Mr Tambourine Man” for good measure). Simple, slick, sly and very touching. Among Meloy’s best.
Buck returns for the masterful “Down By The River.” It’s a track to out REM: REM. Think of “Out of the Blue, Into the Black” era Neil Young sitting in on a re-make session of “Driver 8.”Buck adds his own characteristic sheen, while Colin does his very best Stipe- and a pretty good one it is.
There are some odd choices made by producer Tucker Martine on this number, namely Jenny Conlee’s accordion solo seems misplaced. Maybe the Buckster wasn’t available for a guitar solo. But certainly Chris Funk could have ordered up something appropriately tasty. As talented as she is, Conlee’s accordion sounds like foam on top of a stout beer- it froths up an otherwise hearty brew. All the same, this is one of the great Decemberists songs of all time. It’s a concise, direct and simple track; powerfully memorable.
The Stoneses countrified version of “Honky Tonk Women” is called forth on “All Arise.” Bolstered by Ms. Tornfelt’s sassy fiddle and driven by Moen’s Wattsian smacksmanship- they provide all the impetus necessary. It is only Colin Meloy’s unmissable voice that gives any indication that this might be a Decemberists hoedown.
The spirit of a very young Paul Simon is again harkened with “June Hymn,” reminiscent of Simon‘s “April Come She Will.” A tender pastoral ballad. “Summer comes to Springville Hill.” Simple and simply perfect.
“This Is Why We Fight” sounds like the work of a completely different band. Tough, ominous, surly. Here Colin’s harmonica howls like a siren in the distant darkness. You could hear Stipe sing this one- if it wasn’t Meloy. The verses quiet down a bit- Funk’s worried guitar phrases wringing fingers beneath.
“Come the war. Come the avarice
Come the war. Come hell
Come attrition. Come the reek of bones
Come attrition. Come hell.”
Well, that lyric could have been ripped from today’s headlines: Tucson, Cairo, Wall Street. But wait:
“Bride of quiet. Bride of all unquiet things
Bride of quiet. Bride of hell
Come the archers. Come the infantry.
Come the archers of hell.”
Jeez, all of a sudden we’re lost in a chapter of Lord of the Rings. Archers? Well that casts the whole thing in a different light. So this is Robin Hood, Magna Carta stuff? Who knows? Who cares? It’s great.
Finally “Dear Avery” settles things down to a contemplative gait. Funk’s pedal steel slips pliantly beneath Conlee’s electric piano. The final chords signaling a certainAbbey Road sort of finality to the whole matter. Who are these guys?
Well, that is a question to be answered at some future date. It will be interesting to hear how Colin Meloy stretches his artistic wings and to see where he flies. The journey awaits our literary explorer. This is as fine a send off as any, though not, perhaps, as satisfying as what might have been hoped- ending not with an exclamation point, but a question mark; not with a period, but an ellipsis.