April 1, 2004: The Decemberists, under the watchful eye of your awestruck fanboy scribe here, take the stage at Chicago's Schuba's Tavern (capacity 250) and announce with heavy hearts that frontman Colin Meloy is ill with a sore throat, and that in order to conserve his voice they will use the concert as an opportunity to premiere some new experimental compositions that don't feature their fearless leader's pipes. They waste no time launching into a cacophony of discordant, arrhythmic noise, terrible even by the standards of discordant, arrhythmic noise. Of course, about ten seconds into it, people begin realizing what day it is, prompting an outburst of good-natured jeering and self-satisfied cries of ''April Fools! April Fool's!'' Mid-noodle, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk gets on mic and laments that the audience has ruined the gag, but those in the crowd a little slower on the uptake (cough cough) breathe a sigh of relief: There is nothing wrong with Meloy's larynx, and tonight--as Leonard Cohen once said--will be fine. The most experimental thing The Decemberists will perform at Schuba's Tavern is a note-perfect replication of a new 20-minute suite called ''The Tain.'' That $12 ticket price plus travel costs won't have been squandered away solely for the chance to buy a t-shirt and the otherwise tough-to-find 5 Songs EP.
It all seems so long ago. Prog-rock operettas, sitcom appearances, three-year stretches spent in self-imposed exile--so much has come to pass in the years since Meloy and his ensemble of merry noisemakers were just some dudes (and dudettes) from Portland singing endearingly loquacious songs about soldiers, whores, and weirdos with obsolete professions. And yet there's an illusory quality to that lost time, which ultimately amounts to just over or under ten years, four full-length records, a handful of one-off jobs, and a loudly trumpeted hiatus that--if rumors of a forthcoming new record are to be believed--will amount give or take to just the normal time most modern bands take between records anyway. My gut says that this illusory quality is due to the kind of weird, almost cult-like obsession I enjoyed with this band for about two, maybe two-and-a-half years following the release of 2003's Her Majesty the Decemberists, during which I managed to lock my vision for the group and their music into a sort of unbreakable mold, the result being that even marginal evolutions in their sound began to seem like epochal changes and consequently made it feel as though they'd deviated further from what I felt were their greatest strengths than they ever even had the capability to. In fact, if anything, the biggest U-turn of their career probably came with the program of harmonica-laden folk ditties they left on our coffee table just before ducking out for the duration (so to speak), the disc that, as hype would have it, was supposed to account for their ''return to form.'' Of course, the throwback of that record (2011's The King is Dead) was fundamental as much as if not more than it was musical, insofar as it signaled the first curtailing of ambition in a career that to that point had only known inflation of it, and its modesty, while underwhelming at first, had a way of putting things into perspective. Though I have petty problems with all of their records after the first two, I remain resolute in my preference for 2009's absurd Hazards of Love over 2006's not-absurd-enough Crane Wife, not to mention for The King is Dead (which, of all their records, has risen in my estimation the most since my initial assessment of it) over 2005's Picaresque (which has fallen the farthest). But then of course there are those first two.
By far, I had more fun being a fan of the Decemberists from 2003-2005 than I've had being of any other band, ever. For me, the early Decemberists were one of those rare moments in my musically obsessed life where everything about not only the music but also my experience of the band itself just fell right into place: The records (the two that were out anyway) were fantastic--pristine pop with folk tendencies, so lyrically outlandish it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by it, yet with just enough heart to keep any serious pretension at bay. At least 90% of the people I introduced to their music not only liked it but fell deeply in love with it, some more so than me, turning a personal experience communal, which has been rare in my post-grade-school, non-internet life. To top it off they all seemed down-to-earth and personable; they did things like open their concerts with April Fool's jokes. As someone who grew up admiring rock stars (and didn't yet possess the capacity to differentiate between them and the average joes of the DIY scene--still don't, really), the idea that musicians would man their own merch tables and roam freely around the venue before and after their shows was so exciting it was nerve-wracking; I am nearly positive that there is not a single member of this band that hasn't at least once been the recipient of one of my or one of my concertgoing companions' dumb-assed, starstruck utterances. The whole experience of loving this band had not only musical and artistic but also personal and social meaning--and other bands have generated that same feeling, but never so tangibly, not even when we made Nirvana shirts out of artists' tees and acrylic paint on my pal Luke's front porch.
What survived that phase of intensity wasn't an unconditional love for the band but a cache of wonderful memories, two records that I adore, and a set of unreasonable standards. I have enjoyed all their later records in some capacity and will play them all again with relish someday, but as they arrived I nitpicked them all to smithereens and begrudged them all the same nominal changes that I not only tolerated but actively wished for from artists I liked less. The fact is simply that I wanted all of them to hit as hard and cut as deep as Her Majesty and, to a slightly lesser extent, Castaways and Cutouts, their debut full-length from 2002, did, which was a doomed objective from the git. My issue, not the band's.
We'll get to Her Majesty later in this rodeo, but for now I want to talk about Castaways and Cutouts, to my mind the inferior of the two records but only in highly arbitrary, largely relative terms, and certainly a collection of songs no less etched upon the fiber of my DNA than its successor. Indeed, it's difficult for me to separate these two records in my mind, except in the instance of an exercise like this which forces me to--they account for a body of songs that were played incessantly in various combinations, along with their accompanyng EP's and B-sides, to what would have been the point of fatigue only who can grow tired of this kind of genius? Castaways stands out in my mind as the folksier of the two records, richer in the tradition of, for lack of a better term, storyteller's music, miniature vignettes about characters either too absurd to be real or too absurd to be fake, but the forum is still a certain kind of indie pop that belies any kind of folk music. The particular brand of '80's pop cited by Meloy as an influence is evident; as a latecomer to early R.E.M., I remember hearing ''Welcome to the Occupation'' for the first time and thinking, ''Wow, this pretty much sounds like the template for everything on Castaways and Cutouts,'' and of course he wears his debts to Morrissey and The Smiths on his sleeve.
Listening to Castaways now, the first thing that stands out is the natural rawness of the recording--immaculate though it sounded in innocent old 2003, after the last few click-perfect major label jobs it's easy to pinpoint a sort of Salvation Army band imprecision to the ensemble passages. Meloy plays acoustic guitar like someone who only ever learned the instrument as a means for acquiring a tool to write songs; his sense of rhythm is endearingly chunky on power-chorded uptempo numbers like ''July, July!'' and the second half of ''Odalisque,'' and doesn't evince a great deal of what one might call technique. Old drummer Rachel Blumberg is a sight less nimble than new drummer John Moen, but again, to my ears that's a strength--the professionalism he brings to the band behind the kit doesn't suit the craft-project vibe of these songs, which come across like beautifully colored mosaics fashioned in perfect symmetry but secretly held together with Elmer's School Glue. The term I keep coming back to is charm, though that undersells the meticulous sense of craft present in the arrangements--patronizingly cutes them up, kind of. But whatever it is, I like it--it refines the roughness of the previous year's 5 Songs EP, stopping just short enough of crystalline to feel immediate but still close enough for your mind to bridge the gap.
Meloy's lyrical gymnastics hold up for me to varying degrees of success depending on the day--his literary ambitions were never looking to be contained, and over the years it seemed like the more I convinced myself that his ample vocabulary and storyteller's charisma were what I wanted from The Decemberists' music, the more it failed to stand up on its own. Of course, it's unfair to ask it to--this ain't spoken word poetry, after all. And Castaways is about as perfect a manifestation of his raw talents as one could hope--as much as his word choices, I find myself smitten with his gift for selecting vocal sounds, for zeroing in on the way words work together as aesthetic tools as much as storytelling ammunition: ''A thirty-ought full of rock salt on a warm afternoon''; ''Curses to this mirage/A bottle of ancient Chiraz/A smattering of distant applause''; ''We're lining up the light loafer'd and bored bench warmers''; ''Longing for the old fecund-/-Ity of my homeland'' (splitting a word on a line break--that's a poetry workshop victory right there)--any sense of groove absent from his largely unnuanced strumming is more than compensated for in his spitfire wordsmithing, so on point rhythmically it evokes hip-hop meter (or at the very least ''Subterranean Homesick Blues'' or ''I Am the Walrus'') more than it does any kind of rock or folk music. There are moments where it begins to feel precious (''And we are vagabonds/We travel without seatbelts on/And live this close to death'') and campy (pretty much all of ''Leslie Anne Levine'' and ''A Cautionary Song''), but it strikes me now more than ever that this fusion of sentiment and theatrics is precisely the point. Meloy writes with an amplified sense of distance--his characters bend to his will because they know they're being written about, and they're more unmistakably fictitious as a result--but the writing is alive with the joy of the craft. Even when it turns out that there is no moral or lesson to his stories (which is usually), there is an entertainment value to them that keeps them from being empty (people forget that there are emotions affiliated with fun, too), particularly as they're undercut with pinch doses of sympathy to keep them from feeling like stiff collegiate exercises.
And yet, as strong as Meloy's lyrical gifts are, they are nothing compared to his gift for melody, which as I listen I am reminded was the reason I fell in love with this band in the first place, after first hearing the thirty second sample of ''Billy Liar'' at Barnes and Noble and deciding this was a band I needed to acquaint myself with. Some of these tunes would make Paul McCartney blush--the best ones range from buoyant and whimsical (''The Legionnaire's Lament,'' ''July, July!'') to mournful and elegiac (the seldom mentioned ''Cocoon,'' ''California One''), and the ones in between take long, meandering journeys around the scale without ever losing coherence (I would love to hear Brad Mehldau do a solo piano version of ''Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect''--and after that Sufjan Stevens cover, anything's possible). He renders everything with his signature drawl which I have on more than one occasion heard mistaken for a speech impediment--he adds syllables to long vowel sounds (i.e. ear becomes eeh-urr) and occasionally sounds like he has some kind of British/Australian hybrid accent (''when their husbands were naw-glottal stop-around''), but over time these tics have become as inherent to the band's identity as Bob Dylan's oft-parodied throaty slur (''she meeks love, gee-ust lake a woman'') has to his. They have become musical in their own musically incorrect way.
There are details everywhere--an intermittent lead riff chiming through the verses of ''Legionnaire'' (check around 1:58 in the video above), a lap steel guitar (courtesy of Chris Funk) blanketing ''California One,'' a backup chorale ensemble (courtesy of keyboardist Jenny Conlee live, apparently we have old drummer Blumberg and old bassist Ezra Holbrook to thank for it on the record) in the pre-chorus of ''July, July!''--all the little augmentations that make great songs unforgettable. I've spent a lot of time talking about Meloy because I am a songwriting buff at heart, but it's an important distinction that while the songs are his vision, the Decemberists are absolutely not his band--they are an entourage of colorful multi-instrumentalists who shuffle sonic combinations as swiftly as any DJ, a talking point I'll get to in greater detail when I get to Her Majesty (er, rather, I mean, if I get to it--this countdown thing's supposed to be a surprise!). Until then, find this record and immerse in it. Every song is a treasure.
**This post is part of my Top 50 Favorite Albums series. Read more about that here.