Monday, March 23, 2009


Uncut, April issue

Whip-smart concept album twists the esoteric into arresting new shapes, makes a compelling case for the album as enduring art form.

Since relocating from his hometown of Missoula, Montana, to Portland, Oregon, and forming the Decemberists in 2000, Colin Meloy has been embedding archaic verbiage into songs that draw on the British electric-folk movement—particularly Fairport Convention—and prog-rock fantasias. Along the way, the lyrics of this former creative writing major have hewn to a rigorous style that evokes the rollicking seafaring yarns of Patrick O’Brian and the fabulist fiction of Steven Millhauser, with whom Meloy shares a piquant sense of irony. These aspects are readily apparent in the song titles themselves: “The Legionnaire’s Lament” from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” from 2003’s Her Majesty, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s Picaresque and “The Shankhill Butchers” from The Crane Wife.

This penchant for tongue-in-cheek arcana (I suspect he’d spell his lyrics in Middle English just for laughs if he could get away with it) is accompanied by a thematic ambition that manifests itself in extended pieces like The Tain, a five-part, nearly 19-minute piece based on the ancient Irish epic poem of the same title) that takes up an entire EP, and the three-part title song of The Crane Wife, which spans 15 minutes-plus. Both are laden with orchestral motifs and movements crisply executed with standard rock instrumentation. Given all of the above, it’s a good thing that Meloy possesses a wicked sense of humor, and that his band plays with such visceral intensity.

The Hazards of Love, then, stands as a culmination of all these tendencies. Set in an enchanted forest, it’s a 17-track suite (I hesitate to call it a rock opera, but the term wouldn’t be far off) of striking musical and verbal intricacy that unfolds over the course of nearly an hour. This thumbnail description makes the album sound stultifying, but this is far from the case, thanks to a steady stream of surprises and a depth of detail that reveals itself incrementally, like the layers of an onion. But it takes just one listen for the key melodies, refrains and riffs to ingrain themselves, because they keep leaping out of the fabric. The title song gets no less than four parallel treatments over 18 minutes, the deliriously melodic “The Wanting Comes in Waves” comes up twice and the twinkling guitar figure from Chris Funk (who’s a cross between Richard Thompson and Wilco’s Nels Cline) that first appears in “A Bower Scene” and recurs in “The Abduction of Margaret.”

As always, Meloy sings with the accent of an American actor imitating an Englishman in a 1930s film, and one might expect that this stylized approach might get tiresome over time, but that’s a non-issue on The Hazards of Love. He shares the lead vocal duties with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Sharp, presumably chosen to play the part of the imperiled heroine Margaret because she’s the closest approximation of Sandy Denny Meloy could find, and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, who attacks her part as the forest queen with the confrontational eroticism of Heart’s Ann Wilson tearing into “Barracuda”. Additionally, the album is bedecked with stacked harmonies, with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates joining in here and there. The guest list is completed by Robyn Hitchcock, who plays electric on a mid-album instrumental interlude – and whose “My Wife and My Dead Wife” would have fit right into this plot.

The Decemberists are now on their second major label album (having timed the jump perfectly, as did Death Cab For Cutie), and their following has grown to the extent that they filled the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl in a 2007 concert with the L.A. Philharmonic. In short, they know exactly what they’re doing, and that includes making sure their concept albums contain at least one hooky stand-alone track for airplay and encores. The last album contained “The Perfect Crime #2,” a pumping rocker that picked up where “Life During Wartime” left off, and The Hazards of Love sports “The Rake’s Song,” powered by a springy single-note acoustic riff from Meloy and savage drumming from John Moen, who plays with the relentless precision of Radiohead’s Phil Selway. The lyric concerns another cold-blooded killer, who systematically offs his children, celebrates when his wife dies in childbirth and, once he’s finally free, expresses relief rather than remorse. The tale would be horrific and tasteless if set in the modern world and described in straightforward language, but in Meloy’s deft hands it comes off like a newly discovered chapter of The Canterbury Tales.

If there’s a movie version, the Coen Brothers need to get the first call.

First things first, Colin: How do you follow what is essentially a Chaucerian rock opera? Pete Townshend followed Tommy with Quadrophenia; a scary precedent.
Wait. . .who?. . . what? Who wrote a Chaucerian rock opera? Did I? Hmmmm.

You mention a connection between Fairport and Black Sabbath, and I’m picking up a bit of Jethro Tull and even Heart. Specifically, what did you draw on musically from British electric folk and classic rock?
I was listening to the Smiths and Hüsker Dü during what should've been my teenage metal-stoner phase. I'm belatedly living it out now. I dress exclusively in nicotine-soaked denim and stand across the street from my house at lunch time, smoking cigarettes and hitting a 3' bong named "Schindler's Twist." My wife and child are understandably concerned.

I imagine you prowling used-book stores in search of source material. What are your primary literary reference points? Anything contemporary to go with the antique?
You do? What else do you imagine me doing? I'm thrilled that I seem to live a parallel life in your imagination. I wonder if you wouldn't mind imagining me lying in some quiet hammocked tropical veranda, drinking a mai-thai and being fanned by a modestly dressed "Breathless"-era Jean Seberg. Thanks. Perhaps you=2 0could imagine me reading some Dave Eggers, Gary Shteyngart or George Saunders -- they are three of my favorite contemporary writers.

Following this line, what do traditional idioms and classic literature tell us about modern-day issues?
As far as I can tell, the Brit folk revivalist were by and large drawn to songs that involved drinking, murder and rape. Anne Briggs' first record, the namesake of ours, "The Hazards of Love," included 4 songs that warned of just that -- the apparent hazards of being an amorous person in the auld days. I believe there were relatively more dangers that could befall your typical Spenserian teenager. A lack of prophylactic being a major contributor to this. But I a lot of those dangers remain the same. It's of the "don't talk to strangers" cloth.

Did the narrative lead you toward any particular themes, or vice versa?
I suppose so. I was just following the example of a bunch of old folk songs I was into at the time. They supplied the themes mostly.

Like “Perfect Crime” before it, “The Rake’s Song” doubles as a supremely catchy single, and another homicidal one as well. It’s intriguing how this corrosive and disturbing subject matter is acceptable when couched in archaic rather than modern language.
Yeah. I think that's one of the things that the folk revivalists were into. A lot of women singers of that era were arranging songs in which misogyny and rape figured kind of largely. I think they discovered it was safer to explore those sorts of themes in older songs -- it also gives an interesting perspective into sex relations in the 16th century.

With its seamlessness, this is emphatically an ALBUM in a singles era. Were you consciously doing your part to preserve or advance the form?
I don't know, not really. It just worked, I guess. I've always been a fan of ostentatious narrative records. This is our contribution to that form.

Hypothetically, if this story were to be made into a movie, what directors would be on your short list to bring it to life? I’m thinking Coen brothers…
Guy Maddin. Full stop.

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