Beginnings are interesting, aren’t they? To understand something fully, I think it is necessary to go back to its roots, and follow its development. This is true for many things, not least of all music. The more music you listen to from a band, the more you know about them, and the more you understand the point of their music. Some debut albums are mind-blowing, with the band letting their full amount of talent upon the world, while some are more restrained, just a hint of the bands potential, which then develops on later recordings. 5 Songs falls into the latter category.
5 Songs is the self-released first shot by indie-quintet The Decemberists, later re-released in 2003 featuring an added track ("Apology Song"). It is the beginning of what is turning out to be quite and impressive career. Critically acclaimed and embraced by most indie fans, The Decemberists have become rather popular.
The reason for this success? I would say originality. The Decemberists have a very distinctive sound due to their instrumentation (often featuring an accordion along with other instruments not often heard in indie music), but what makes the band, for me anyway, is the lyrics of Colin Meloy, the lead vocalist. This is by no means their only strong quality; they have a very strong signature sound, and many of their songs are catchy and simply pleasant to listen to. Ultimately these qualities are means to an end. To convey the lyrics; the epic tales of lovers, soldiers, ghosts of newborns, jocks, and last but not least: Pirates.
Indeed, The Decemberists are a theatrical band, in every sense of the word. Just looking at the cover of Picaresque will tell you that much. Their songs are dramatic and epic, and ripe with lyrical gems. They tell you a story that ensnares you and keeps you listening again and again. Unfortunately, this is where 5 songs is lacking, compared to the other titles in their discography. The title is fitting really (aside from the added track to contradict it, of course), in that this is really a collection of songs, whereas Castaways & Cutouts, Her Majesty, The Tain and Picaresque are story books more than anything. On here, their stories are not as epic, frightening or heartbreaking. Does this make 5 Songs a bad record?
No. For a debut EP it is certainly impressive, and I’m not saying that is devoid of their usual story-telling lyrics. They are just not as out there, for lack of a better term, as on the other album. This is a toned-down version of The Decemberists, and their debut EP is the only thing that could be called let-down in their consistently excellent (and I do mean excellent) discography. It seems like The Decemberists had yet to find out who they were, or perhaps who they wanted to be. However, their unique style does show on this album, mainly on ”My Mother Was a Chinese Trapez Artist”, a rather strange but interesting narrative.
Unlike many songwriters, he often doesn’t sing about his own life, but sings about a protagonist, who he becomes. (Be it a prostitute, an athlete, a soldier or the ghost of a newborn). All of the songs are well-done indie pop songs. There isn’t a real highlight here, a song that just reaches out and grabs you. Instead, you have six pretty good songs, none of them bad, but none of them amazing either.
The closer (the added track) is where the album really drops, lyrically. Instead of a romantic, epic, dramatic tale, here we have a story about a guy who’s lost his friend’s bicycle (Which is named Madeline, by the way). I don’t know if you can imagine, but this song is rather difficult to take seriously (and not in a good way). If you can abstract from the lyrics, you have a great, upbeat song, with a nice harmonized chorus. I feel the EP would be better off without it, though. It sticks out, quite simply, containing arguably the weakest lyrics the band has ever written, and ultimately detracts from the EP as a whole.
Make no mistake, I am a Decemberists fanboy, and I like this EP a lot, because I’m in love with their sound. If you aren’t, there isn’t much for you on this EP. Therefore, I’ll give it 3/5. A good album, but lacking compared to their later material. It has no love song as sweet and soulful as "Clementine", no ballad as poignantly honest as "I Was Meant for the Stage" no political anthem as thought-provoking as b]"Sixteen Military Wives", and no tale as bitterly vengeful as "The Mariner’s Revenge Song". It is simply a collection of good pop songs, that most indie fans should be able to enjoy.
Listen to this, enjoy it, and look at how far The Decemberists have come since.