I’m going to see the Decemberists! In August. Which is ages away. Still, the ticket purchase has me spiralling back through the years to high school, when they were one of the few currently-relevant bands I was interested in. Still, my affection for them throughout my mid to late teens was based on the then-contemporary albums Picaresque, The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love. I’m not sure I ever checked out the four full lengths that bookend that trilogy, and I certainly hadn’t heard any of the EPs or miscellaneous singles. So, this week, I ran the discography. Normally, I’d lump all of these into one gigantic review. But given my aversion to paragraph breaks, I think that wall of text would stretch on a bit. So, to start the week’s reviews, here are my thoughts on every studio album, EP (excluding lives) and single that the Decemberists have released. In chronological order.
14 Decemberists-related reviews and 12 others, for a total of 26 reviews.
The Decemberists: 5 Songs — By no means is this essential. It’s evidence that Colin Meloy has been Colin Meloy since the beginning of his career, but for the most part, the Decemberists’ debut EP is an expression of promise that’s not yet fulfilled. The songs I’m most likely to return to are “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” whose lyric is a vintage Meloy first-person narrative, and “Apology Song,” which was clearly intended as a bit of ephemera (it’s literally just Meloy apologizing to his friend for losing his bicycle) but turned out to be ome of the more skillful and witty early Decemberists songs. They’re very much a folk band at this point. The arrangements are simple. There are no bad songs here, but the first full-length represents a giant leap forward from this EP.
The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts — How typical of this band to give their debut full-length a title that sounds like an outtakes collection. Part of this band’s charm is the way that their songs focus on people who are in some way on the margins, sometimes for reasons beyond their control, but just as often because they’ve engaged (with relish) in some sort of shady deal or dubious practice. Castaways and Cutouts is where that really starts. It’s fitting that the key line in the album’s final song is “Calling all bedwetters and ambulance chasers.” Because they clearly all showed up, and they’ve been populating Decemberists albums ever since. The music on here is more ambitious by far than on the debut EP, but they’re yet to go all Fairport Convention/Jethro Tull. Still, even in this more subdued setting (relative to later albums), it’s obvious how awesome Jenny Conlee is. The accordion on this is just great.
The Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists — I can tell this is going to be the Decemberists album that my opinion will be the most subject to change about. My initial impression is that it’s something like Beatles for Sale or Time and a Word: an album where the band has clearly honed their craft since the last one, but which is nonetheless not as consistent as what came before. However, I can’t honestly say that there are any particular songs on this that I’m especially ambivalent about. “Shanty for the Arethusa” has some lines that made me raise an eyebrow, but it’s also got some fantastic melodies. “Billy Liar” is a bit pat in the verses, but the chorus is glorious. And then there’s the fact that this album has “I Was Meant for the Stage” on it, which is a classic. I know it’s meant to be ironic, but it’s hard for me not to take it a bit seriously, given that it was my theatre kid friends who first introduced me to this band. I think Castaways and Cutouts is a bit better than this, but not by much.
The Decemberists: The Tain — Nobody could have known at the time, but this now seems like the moment when the Decemberists’ imperial phase started. (Retrospectively, it’s also the one reason why Hazards of Love shouldn’t have come as a surprise.) Not coincidentally, it is also the start of their fixation on the music of the English folk revival and its folk rock cousins. This turned out to be good look for the Decemberists, and one that they could mine a surprising variety of approaches from. Here, they veer towards the Jethro Tull side of the folk revival equation: the side that isn’t fully engaged in “revivalism,” and would just as soon adopt elements of the proto-metal that was floating about at the time. I’ve always loved music that contrasts heavy elements with acoustic elements, see also: Tull, Led Zeppelin, Opeth. Having access to both ends of the spectrum strikes me as a more likely way to capture a panoramic image of the human experience. Basically, The Tain marks the point where the Decemberists decided that regardless of their folky origins, they would be making massively ambitious music from here on out. I’m reminded of a couple lines from the album that precedes this “I was meant for applause/I was meant for derision.” The fact that the Decemberists followed Her Majesty with something as potentially divisive as this strikes me as another reason to doubt the ironic intent of that song.
The Decemberists: Picaresque — This is the one. The classic. The period album, where the period is the one that former indie kids associate with the Decemberists. The one you’d anthologize if that was a thing you did with albums. The masterpiece. To be fair, it’s also the album with nostalgia on its side. It was certainly the first Decemberists album I heard, and possibly the only one I heard for several years after. (I think I may have sat The Crane Wife out until after Hazards of Love came out.) I will forever associate it with my days as a weird theatre kid. It was one of relatively few albums that were current at the time that I could appreciate with the same intensity that my peers did. In retrospect, it seems like a gift of coincidence that this deliberately theatrical album came out at the very time when I was hanging out with the community theatre folk that this seems directly intended for. The slapped-together costumes and cardboard sets of the album cover and CD booklet were the world I was living in at the time. And I still love the Decemberists for glorifying the naïve overreach of small-time theatre. The whole album is infused with “let’s put on a show!” bonhomie. I remember my experience of that: it was always more about satisfying my own need for an expressive outlet — and for a community — than it was about satisfying the audience. Nothing teaches you the appeal of self-indulgence like community theatre. Except for Picaresque. Listening back to it now, it’s that rare thing that a) arrived in my life at the right time and b) is just as good or better now. There are songs on this, like “On the Bus Mall” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” that I don’t recall being nearly so enamoured with when I was 15. That’s reassuring. It convinces me that my love for this album and this band isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. For evidence of Colin Meloy’s undeniable virtuosity, you need look no farther than the opening track. “The Infanta” is probably peak Meloy, insofar as his defining characteristic is his huge vocabulary. I particularly love “Within sight of the baroness/Seething spite for this live largesse/By her side sits the baron, her barrenness barbs her.” It was the theatricality of the Decemberists that captured my attention when I first heard them. These days, it’s their literary quality. Meloy clearly just loves words. He loves big words, old words and rare words. But he doesn’t use them for obfuscation — just the opposite: Meloy’s vocabulary allows him to tell unfamiliar stories about unusual characters with incredible clarity. It’s impossible to listen to a song from Picaresque and come away from it without knowing what it was about. Google may come in handy in a few places, but you can ascertain everything you really need to from context. That’s about all I’ve got for generalities. If I were to take this review any farther, I’d need to start diving into specific songs. I’ll resist that, save to say that “16 Military Wives” is the definitive protest song of the George W. Bush era, and that “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is not just one of my favourite songs but also one of my favourite stories in any context. This is a classic of its time. Pick of the week.
The Decemberists: Picaresqueties — I hadn’t heard this collection of outtakes before, and while it’s a slight thing compared to the band’s previous EP, it’s worth hearing. “The Bandit Queen” is especially good. (Man, we’re already a fair way into this and I haven’t heard a bad song yet.)
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — This reminds me a bit of Selling England by the Pound, not just because it’s a poignant album full of elaborate, beautiful story songs, but also because it’s the first time that the band’s playing is captured in an ideal light. Meloy’s songwriting excellence was always obvious, and the band’s arrangements were always a highlight of their albums. But The Crane Wife is the first album where it becomes clear that this band has chops. Like, serious chops. It’s a clear demonstration that the resources of a major label can actually make a difference to the product. This album’s popularity surprises me a little, given that it’s the proggiest thing in their catalogue up to this point (save for The Tain). “The Island” in particular is practically a Jethro Tull song. Its second section, with the Hammond organ and guitar picking, is a dead ringer for Thick as a Brick. Shortly after, Jenny Conlee uses a synth sound that’s almost identical to the one on A Passion Play and War Child. So there are signifiers here that appeal to me. But “The Island” isn’t the album’s highlight: that would be the title suite, which is neck-and-neck with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” for my favourite thing this band has ever done. Lyrically, it’s restrained by Meloy’s standards. No dictionary words, here. But the storytelling is absolutely heartbreaking, and benefits enormously from its first-person perspective (like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). It was a canny decision to place the suite’s third part at the beginning of the album, because it adds poignancy to part one. Once we know how the story ends, the beginning becomes bittersweet. The smaller, standalone songs on this album don’t preoccupy me the way that the shorter tracks on Picaresque do, but it always surprises me how much I like them when I listen to the album start to finish. “When the War Came” and “Sons and Daughters” are particular favourites. The latter is good evidence that Meloy can write a good song with economy in mind, rather than his usual effusiveness. I love The Crane Wife. It’s very much the sound of a band at their peak.
The Decemberists: Always the Bridesmaid — I’m treating this like an EP, even though it’s a collection of three singles. Given that I’ve listened to a lot of Decemberists music in a short period of time, this was a welcome respite between two of their meatiest works, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. As Decemberists EPs go, it strikes me as the opposite of The Tain. Where that was a huge proggy epic, this is a collection of Decemberists songs working on the smallest scale they operate at. The Velvet Underground cover is inessential, but aside from that this is all gold. Musically, I’m particularly enamoured of the super catchy “Days of Elaine,” but the best lyrics are in “A Record Year for Rainfall.” That song joins “Sixteen Military Wives” in the ranks of Decemberists songs that seem more relevant now than ever. “In the annals of the empire/did it look this grey before the fall?”
The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love — This may be my second-favourite Decemberists album. I can’t quite tell whether my affection for it is a bit puffed up due to its unfairly mixed reception relative to The Crane Wife, but I really do think this belongs alongside the band’s very best works. Mind you, I’m always going to step up to defend an overreaching concept album. This is just another example of the spirit of theatricality and indulgence that the band celebrated in the album art of Picaresque. Storywise, it only makes as much sense as the average opera. But like the best operas, it trades more on the inner lives and relationships of its characters than on narrative cohesion. And while the characters are effectively cardboard cutout (and castaway) fairytale characters, their plights and scenarios are relatable enough for any receptive listener to graft their own inner life onto. More crucially, the music is outstanding. For a few years, The Tain must have seemed like a first step down a road ultimately not taken. But The Crane Wife cracked the door back open to some of the proggier tendencies on that EP. And Hazards represents a proper maturation of that side of the band’s sound. It’s the fullest flowering of their Anglophilia, with folk, prog and proto-metal all accounted for — plus a story that pulls from the same well as Narnia or Harry Potter: what happens when a normal human stumbles into a world of fantasy? For my money, parts one and four of the title suite, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” “The Rake’s Song” and “Annan Water” are all among the best songs in the catalogue. Again, it owes a lot to Jethro Tull. But it isn’t a pastiche. More than anything, it feels like the band arrived independently at the formula for Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play, by way of some of the same sources. For my tastes, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The Decemberists: The King is Dead — I implied earlier that the Decemberists’ imperial phase was coextensive with their obsession with the British folk revival. That turns out to be a bit unfair. This is a sharp left from Hazards of Love, and whether that has anything to do with its lukewarm reception is a fool’s game to try and suss out. But the band is definitely not relying on British models, here. It’s Americana all the way through. But this isn’t entirely outside of the band’s wheelhouse: the early albums had a whiff of American folk about them. Just, with a bigger vocabulary. And besides, this is just another folk tradition that foregrounds story and character, which has always been what Colin Meloy is most interested in. True, the characters on The King is Dead are undefined everypeople, rather than children of the Spanish monarchy or infanticidal rakes. But this album strikes me as having essentially the same goals and modes of connection as all of the ones that came before. It’s just doing it with a drastically different sonic palette and set of reference points. Taken in context of the discography, it has the feel of a “wings of wax” album, in the sense that they may have flown too close to the sun on Hazards of Love and this finds them once again on the ground. (See Let it Be following the White Album and Beggars Banquet following Satanic Majesties for archetypal examples.) But listening to it, I got the sense that Meloy is successfully having his cake and eating it too: he’s still doing what he’s always done, but differently enough to appease those who felt that Hazards was a bit much. This is certainly my favourite new discovery I’ve made through the course of this survey. For my money, it’s superior to the two early albums and belongs in the same category as the three that directly precede it. I find “January Hymn” especially poignant, but then I would.
The Decemberists: Long Live the King — The first set of non-album tracks since Picaresqueties to actually feel like outtakes. Always the Bridesmaid is awesome and Crane Wife has a bunch of fantastic outtakes (more on which shortly). But this EP is definitely a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for The King is Dead. No shame in that, and I’d certainly classify it as inessential rather than bad. It’s a curiosity. Worth a go if you like The King is Dead, which I sure do.
The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — Ah, well, we had to come to it eventually. After such prolonged ebullience on my part, I’m hesitant to actually say it outright: this is disappointing. Not shatteringly disappointing, or anything, but it’s certainly the only Decemberists full-length I discovered this week that I’m not super excited to return to. It seems I’m not alone in my muted response. Still, does anybody else feel like critics are generally more inclined to chastise an artist for overambition than underambition? Because I was paying attention to that sort of thing when Hazards of Love came out, and it seemed clear to me that it was an unpopular album among those sorts of people. And having read up on the critical appraisal of this one (also not an enormously popular album), the backlash seems substantially less vitriolic. I wish this were the sort of album that bands got chastised for. Because to me, there is very little here that catches the ear, lyrically or musically, in the way that basically every song from the previous four (five? six?) albums did. There are exceptions. Musically, “Make You Better” is a brilliant, hooky pop song with the unexpected development of an Adrian Belew impression from guitarist Chris Funk. Lyrically, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is as wonderfully arch as Colin Meloy gets, and it’s the one song on the album whose lyrics I immediately felt compelled to listen to. And, by the way, I take Meloy’s point. The song is basically a preemptive (and might I add, slightly defensive) retort to reviews like this one. And I agree with Meloy that it’s only right for his band to change. I was happy to hear them transition into full-on prog on Hazards of Love. I was delighted by how naturally they sunk into the groove of Americana on The King is Dead. But I’m only happy with changes that expand and refocus the band’s ambition, which is what I love them for. Terrible/Beautiful pares it back. I hope their next album is, I dunno, a movie.
The Decemberists: Florasongs — Not much to say that I didn’t already say about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. These songs are outtakes from that album, and sound like it. This is the least essential Decemberists studio release.
The Decemberists: Miscellaneous singles, B-sides and outtakes — I did make a real effort for true completion here. I’m defining that as “every finished studio recording by the Decemberists, plus one or two unfinished ones.” There are songs that fall into that box but don’t appear on any of the previously discussed releases. As far as I can tell, this is a complete list of them: the John Denver cover “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas),” the Her Majesty-era B-sides “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right” and “Sunshine,” the Crane Wife bonus tracks “Culling of the Fold,” “After the Bombs,” “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back,” “The Capp Street Girls” and “Hurdles Even Here,” “One Engine” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, and “Sleepless” from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night. If anybody reading this knows of tracks I’ve missed, I’d be much obliged to know. This is an album’s worth of additional material from this band, most of it worthwhile. The Crane Wife outtakes are the most essential, and I do mean essential. “After the Bombs,” “Culling of the Fold” and “Hurdles Even Here” are all as good as some of the tracks that made the album. “After the Bombs” also serves well as a postscript to the album, given that “Sons & Daughters” ends with a lyric about bombs. “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back” has some wanky horns that do it no favours, but it’s still the sound of a band in their prime, having a good time in the studio. That’s not nothing. The rest of this is ephemera, but it’s good ephemera, particularly the Hunger Games track, weirdly. As a final note on this topic, I feel as though I plunged rather suddenly into negativity towards the end of this. But to be clear, I definitely don’t think that it’s over for this band. One rough album does not a career ruin. But even if this body of work was all we’ll get, it’s pretty damn impressive. Of everything I listened to this week, let me list what I consider essential: Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists, The Tain, Picaresque, The Crane Wife and its outtakes, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead, “One Engine,” “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and “Make You Better.” That’s a staggering batting average, and I’m in no way sick of this band, even after listening to their entire output in the space of a week. (As I post this, I’m listening to The King is Dead again.)
Louis C.K.: 2017 — I have a theory about this special. My theory is that it is Louis C.K.’s challenge to himself to see how brilliantly he can perform sub-par-to-average material. He’s got a bunch of jokes that aren’t as good as in his previous specials, and he wants to see if he has the chops to elevate them by being more performative than he ever has before. There are characters, pantomime and silly voices in this special and it feels like C.K. is honing a very specific part of his toolkit in a controlled environment, i.e. on mediocre jokes, to see what happens. It’s possible that I’m being overly charitable. But this is a guy who is constantly working to move himself forward. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Todd Barry mentions in an interview that Louis told him about a concept for a show where he only does his weakest material and tries not to bomb. This is the worst Louis C.K. special. That’s why I’m working so hard to justify it. But the fact that there’s something in there to help me do that is evidence that it still isn’t all bad.
Judge John Hodgman: “DNA NDA” — One twin wants to know for sure whether they’re identical. The other does not. This is great because it walks a fine line between remaining lighthearted and exploring the somewhat troubled relationship between these two brothers. It also features a sleep-deprived but rather amusing bailiff Jesse Thorn, whose presence on this show is invaluable. He’s almost a psychopomp: guiding us into the unfamiliar and oddly-reasoned world of Judge Hodgman. Very nice.
Criminal: “Wildin” — A sad story of a kid who spent six months in a federal detention centre after having crossed the border into America and made a life there. The saddest part of the story is an interview where a teacher mentions how after Wildin’s arrest, a huge chunk of her class stopped coming to school for fear that ICE was out to get them.
Science Vs: “Acne” — God, I don’t know why I came back to this show. The premise is gold, but the jokes are beyond insufferable: they’re almost not jokes. I know they’re not supposed to be good, but that’s no excuse. I see the next one’s about climate change, so I’ll probably listen to that. But I’m going to be selective from here on out.
Strangers: “Claire Obscure” — This is one of the hardest podcast episodes to listen to that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a story about a woman who was sexually abused by her father as a child, and it only gets more extreme from there. Lea Thau is one of relatively few people who could tell this story. She’s empathetic and feels no need to make the story her own, or to make it mean something larger. It’s simply a story about a person’s intense trauma, delivered with no purpose except to acknowledge that these things happen. People like Claire’s father exist. This is appalling, and I don’t know if I can straightforwardly recommend it. But it is definitely a good thing that should have been made. Pick of the week.
Science Vs: “Climate Change… the Apocalypse?” — And just as I suspected I might never listen to this show again, it does this really great episode. This isn’t asking the question “is climate change real?” Because if you have one-third of a brain you know it is and you’re sick of the conversation. This is basically a history of the evolving consensus on climate change. It goes into details like the debate over whether rising temperatures and increasing carbon content in the air are related. And it puzzles over how the future might turn out, given that we can’t predict how humans will respond to the crisis. Great stuff.
Arts and Ideas: “Monks, Models and Medieval Time” — I wish I’d heard this before I listened to S-Town. It’s a talk by Seb Falk about astrolabes and other medieval timepieces, and how their existence is counterevidence to the claim that the medieval ages were a time of dogma and darkness. Or, at least, that they were entirely that. I mean, Falk also goes into how these timepieces were used to determine the time of the month when the planets were in the proper alignment for effective bloodletting. So, you know.
Longform: “Hrishikesh Hirway” — I don’t listen to Song Exploder regularly, but I admire Hirway’s accomplishment very much. And this interview reveals that he’s a deeply self-aware sort of person, with a certain ambivalence towards his own success as a podcaster. He’s also a tireless workaholic. I hope he’s actually as bad at time management as he claims to be, because that means there’s hope for me. Also, the idea that Marc Maron was a major inspiration for Song Exploder is something I never would have thought of.
Code Switch: “Changing Colors In Comics” — This is a fascinating look at a deeply frustrating industry. Given that the only recent superhero comic I’ve read (and disliked, but that’s beside the point) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, it’s easy to forget that the industry is a morass of whiteness. Glen Weldon (who sounds soooo happy to be here) does a great job of contextualizing those fuckheaded remarks from Marvel’s VP sales about people not wanting diversity. The interviews here are fantastic, and I really want to go to Amalgam Comics in Philly. Though, I don’t see myself going to Philly anytime in the near future.
The Moth: “Facing The Dark” — It’s been ages since I listened to The Moth. This episode contains some of what often turns me off about it, namely a compulsive need to have perfectly self-sufficient stories conclude with a homily. The second story here is the best one, precisely because it doesn’t do this. It’s told by a neurologist who tries to understand her father’s trauma from the Holocaust through her study. You wouldn’t think it would be a funny story, but it is. John Turturro shows up after to tell a really remarkable story about his family, but it suffers from concluding homily syndrome, which ends the episode on a sour note. I’m happy I listened to this, because I’ve been meaning to revisit some shows I’ve put aside. But, this show remains difficult to recommend to the majority of my deeply unsentimental friends.
Longform: “Brian Reed” — The host who interviews Reed (entirely about S-Town, obviously) here knows him a bit, and has some insights to share about him. He is apparently a person with a remarkable ability to “meet you where you’re at.” That’s why S-Town is as good as it is. The best that can be said of Reed’s involvement in that story is that he didn’t fuck it up. And appearing to be at cross-purposes with the people around you is a surefire way to fuck it up. This is a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it as a piece of post-S-Town listening.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “S-Town and Chewing Gum” — I’m with Glen Weldon on S-Town, obviously. I do see the ethical concerns levelled by Margaret Willison (and others), but I’m sticking to my concept of the show as being fundamentally John B. McLemore’s attempt to have his life novelized. This is idiosyncratic, I understand. But to the extent that he was aware of his own charisma and the extent that he gives good tape (and the Longform interview with Brian Reed indicates that he was), I feel like he really did know that he’d be the central character of this narrative. That goes a fair ways towards assuaging what doubts I might have momentarily had. Which, to be fair, weren’t many.