Review Summary: Sinister and expertly crafted, The Tain EP is only bogged down by an overbearing narrative.
It’s no secret that The Decemberists have a knack for theatrics. From their accordion drenched debut to their most recent concept concoction The Hazards of Love
, the band has been incredibly keen on soaking things in hyperliterate narratives and semi-progressive indie-blather in order to tell a “story”. And tell a story they do -- Colin Meloy’s eclectic and archaic vocabulary perfectly suits the fables he sings of and it’s very infrequent that The Decemberists ever compromise melody for narrative. With conceptual (and very lengthy) songs like ‘The Island, Come and See, The Landlord’s Daughter, You’ll Not Feel the Drowning’ and the classic ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’, The Decemberists make it obvious that they love being dramatic songwriters. But perhaps it would surprise you to learn that the band’s longest and most grandiose song ever is neither of these two songs and it’s not even on a ‘Decemberists full length. 'The Tain', the title track (and only track) of The Tain EP
is in fact over 18 minutes long and is just as expansive as any of the band’s lengthier tracks. Retelling the classic mythological Irish story of Táin Bó Cúailnge
, the song is one of the band’s most ambitious and overlooked song suites. It has five distinct parts; all of them wonderfully beautiful - it also has many antiquated words you’ve never heard before (and never will again); all of them thoroughly pretentious.
A brooding acoustic guitar riff sinisterly introduces the songs opening number, which quickly unfolds into an organ-led saunter based around the original riff. Yet before you get too comfortable (or exhausted) with the sailor-esque metallic guise that the band puts on, part II and part III sweep into the scene and sweep you off your feet. The two parts, respectively a classic rocker segment and a more relaxed, tranquil section, are undoubtedly the song’s strongest moments - you’ll struggle to resist singing along with Meloy as he belts out “Damn all the angles that oppress my sight, I will bleed your heart through a samovar soon!
” (not that you or anybody on earth knows what a “samovar*” is). Segueing out of the lulling Part III is the equally relaxed Part IV, an accordion-led coma of a segment (in the best way possible) that explodes into the closing chapter Part V, an upbeat reprise of Part I that successfully completes the musical journey of 'The Tain'. To summarize, 'The Tain' has got some serious dynamic going - it’s without question The Decemberists most diverse work and is one of their most musically interesting concoctions.
“But what of the narrative?
”, you will surely ask. A lot of weight goes into the narrative in a song such as this one. Well, despite Meloy being one of modern music’s craftiest wordsmiths, on 'The Tain' he tends to get a little too broad and ambiguous with his pompous vocabulary. While those familiar with the original story of Táin Bó Cúailnge
may find lines like “He comes in the chang and the chariot/And all his eunuchs in thrail/Can scarce lift his line and lariat
” titillating, most people will find Meloy’s lyricism to be a bit of a chore to grasp (this has luckily been amended in the band’s later work). Yet despite having a narrative that seems to be lost in the translation, The Tain EP
is still one of the band’s most overlooked and accomplished works. It’s not a starting place for new listeners (that would be The Crane Wife
), but for fans of progressive/indie music or obscure Irish mythology, you’ll likely find The Tain EP
to be a fun experience - one that warrants listen after listen, after listen, after listen...
*Samovar: (noun) a highly decorated tea urn from Russia.