Ah, The Decemberists. What a quirky, but wonderfully innovative indie band. Their music is deeply rooted in story telling; tales of the sea, of love, of war, of anything really. In fact, one of their EP’s, The Tain, is based on an old Celtic tale of the same name. You could argue that they are old-fashioned, but the stories they tell are relevant to day, and The Decemberists have more to say than most bands around these days. Just look at their name. ”Why?”, you may ask. Let me explain:
December 1825. Up until this point, the autocratic government of modern Russia had met no resistance from its people. Influenced by the liberal ideas of the Western World, a group formed a conspiracy against Czar Nicholas I, the ruler at the time, fighting for freedom and democracy. While the uprising was a total disaster (3.000 arrests, five of whom were hung, more than 230 were exiled), it started a wave of revolutionary activity. The conspirators were named The Decembrists, a name this band took upon themselves.
They tell old stories, sure, but they are still interesting, and relevant to society today. Their lyrics are definitely one of their best features, because they tell intricate stories that makes them seem different from any other band out there. Even Neutral Milk Hotel and Belle & Sebastian, with whom they are often compared. They are sources of inspiration sure, but The Decemberists is still a unique band. They mix a traditional indie style with a greater range of instrumentation, the instantly recognizable voice of Colin Meloy, and the epic narrative, rather than lyrical approach to songwriting (Not in every song, but their narrative writing-style is very characteristic) They are very consistent in making quality recordings, making it hard to pick their most important album, out of the three they’ve made. This might be the most experimental and least accessible album, but that’s debatable. It is a very diverse album, more so than their debut Castaways & Cutouts
, which featured mostly acoustic, folk-indie songs. This album is more dramatic and perhaps too ‘out there’ for some people.
It starts off with “Shanty for the Arethusa”, a fantastic opening song. It is one of the best songs on the album, and one of The Decemberists’ best altogether. True to their theatrical style, this is a taleabout a pirates. Colin Meloy sings ”Tell your daughters do not walk the streets alone tonight”
convincingly, in what might be their most dramatic song yet. A true highlight of the album, and also one of the longest songs. In fact, the three longest songs are the three best, but they are very different from one another. Especially the dramatic epic ”Shanty for the Arethusa” and the stripped-down ballad”I Was Meant for the Stage”, in which he fittingly tells about being out there on stage, exposed. It suits the lack of much instrumentation very well. Also the song is almost devoid of complex imagery and metaphors. It is simple, and therein lies its greatness: (Mother please be proud / Father be forgiving / Even though you told me, ‘Son you’ll never make a living’ “)
. It works well. The third highlight is track four, the longest song on the album. It’s difficult to explain. The verse is rather mellow, changing into a powerful chorus, which provides a nice contrast.
But other than these songs, there are many other great ones. ”Soldiering Life” is a simple, but effective song, with the excellent line: (And you / my brother in arms / I’d rather I’d lose my limbs / than let you come to harm). ”Red Right Ankle” is a warm song, with some very interesting imagery. ”Los Angeles, I’m Yours” combines happy music and the warm title with contrasting lyrics. Full of powerful poetic lines, my favourite has to be: (An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore / Los Angeles I’m yours.), which clearly shows the contrast I was talking about.
In fact, there are no actual missteps on the album, but a few slightly weaker tracks, such as ”Billy Liar”, and the album closer: ”As I Rise” a folk-indie song, which is not a very powerful closer (though by no means a bad song), as ”I Was Meant for the Stage” would have been. Nevertheless, this is a fantastic album. They try out a lot of new things, which they seem to tone down on their following album, which simultaneously add and detract from its quality. The highlights are better than on most of their other releases, but it’s arguably a little less consistent. This gets 4/5.