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Favourite Albums — The Decemberists’ Picaresque

Friday, August 3, 2007

Even though I’ve only been aware of this album for about a year, it has already cemented itself in the pantheon of the greats, having its own special entrance to my personal Valhalla of music — each song lavishly attended to by thirty handmaidens swathed in perfumed silk, every note bathed in cream and honey, and the whole set to dine on all manner of plump roasted fowl and caviar, exotic fruits from the dark continent, and aged blood-red wines of the Occident.

If you know anything about The Decemberists you’ll know that my introduction was purposely grandiose and extravagant as a tribute to the band’s — specifically lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy’s — wonderfully layered and esoteric stylings; funny thing is, first time I heard them I was fairly non-plussed.

A friend had it on one day while I was at her apartment, and I remember being irked by the tenor of Meloy’s voice; when I inquired and was informed it was The Decemberists, I remember having heard the name bandied about pretty regularly in hipster circles, and I immediately dismissed them as just the latest ‘It-Band’ and decided they annoyed me (this, of course, before listening to them thoughtfully). Then a few months later I found out that my girlfriend-at-the-time really liked them and had gotten tickets to an upcoming show at Kool Haus (my
review of which is here
). At this point I thought I should give them an actual chance and so committed to listening to both Picaresque and The Crane Wife — the rest, as they say . . .

While both albums are great, Picaresque is definitely the stronger of the two. Meloy is first and foremost a storyteller — one of arcane and historical leanings — and on this album his fables range from the royal courts of Spain to the playing fields of Eton to the belly of a giant whale, all done with so much intelligence and pinnache you’re simply blown away when it all finally sinks in (and obviously I have now taken to his voice, which seems perfectly suited to the role of outcast minstrel which he has assumed). To wit, here are some examples:

Eli, the barrow boy, when they found him
Dressed all in corduroy, he had drowned in the river down the way.
They laid his body down in a churchyard
But still when the moon is out, with his pushcart, he calls down the day.

Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown
Made of gold and silk Arabian thread
But I am dead and gone and lying in a church ground;
Still I push my barrow all the day
Still I push my barrow all the day

(Eli the Barrow Boy)

It took me fifteen years
To swallow all my tears
Among the urchins in the street,
Until a priory
Took pity and hired me
To keep their vestry nice and neat.
But never once in the employ
Of these holy men
Did I ever once turn my mind
From the thought of revenge
oh, oh

One night I overheard
The prior exchanging words
With a penitent whaler from the sea;
The captain of his ship
Who matched you toe to tip
Was known for wonton cruelty.
The following day
I shipped to sea
With a privateer
And in the whistle
Of the wind
I could almost hear
oh, oh . . .

(The Mariner’s Revenge Song)

In matching blue raincoats,
Our shoes were our show boats
We kicked around.
From stairway to station
We made a sensation
With the gadabout crowd.
And oh, what a bargain,
We’re two easy targets
For the old men at the off-track,
Who paid in palaver
And crumpled old dollars,
Which we squirreled away
In our rat-trap hotel by the freeway.
And we slept-in Sundays . . .

Among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants
Of the old town,
We reigned at the pool hall
With one iron cue ball
And we never let the bastards get us down.
And we laughed off the quick tricks —
The old men with limp dicks —
On the colonnades of the waterfront park.
As four in the morning came on cold and boring,
We huddled close
In the bus stop enclosure enfolding;
Our hands tightly holding.
(On The Bus Mall)

It’s rare when you find real poetry like this in pop music, and yet there it is. My favourite song on the album is the above, On The Bus Mall. Musically, it’s pretty base — simple G and C chords back and forth for the majority of the verses, the chorus going to familiar Em and Am territory, with a piano part over-top of everything. What makes it so good though is how the brazen, seemingly simplistic music coincides perfectly with the attitude of the characters; they also are brazen and seemingly simplistic — vagabond kids with everything and nothing, at once hustlers and drug addicts, huddling close for warmth in the coldest hours of the morning, they ‘fuse like a family,’ and yet the singer declares ‘but I will not mourn for you.’ The way Meloy fits all this verbosity into the melody is pretty impressive too.

I can’t narrow it down to any standouts because the entire album is uniformly fantastic, although The Engine Driver holds special meaning for me (though I’m not going to tell you why); instead I will just throw your way any of the songs that I can easily link to. First up is the video for 16 Military Wives:

And here’s a clip of We Both Go Down Together recorded live with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl a few weeks ago (the video quality is poor but the audio is good):

The Infanta, from the same show:

The Decemberists are definitely a unique and much needed breath of fresh air in the current musical landscape, and I never come close to getting sick of listening to them. Sometimes you just need a travelling band of musical wastrels to get you through, and that they certainly are.

And by the way, ‘picaresque’ is a “popular subgenre of Spanish prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.” In case you were wondering. 03971semajsmubla

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, August 7, 2007 8:58 am

    I should get this album. I have Her Majesty, and enjoy it. CBC tends to play We Both Go Down Together a lot, and it’s a great song.

    It took me a while to get used to Meloy’s voice as well, but well worth it once I did.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 9:52 am

    Just picked up Her Majesty this week — really great as well.

    I thought I gave you Picaresque though . . . or was it The Crane Wife? I remember sending you something.

  3. Tuesday, August 7, 2007 10:02 am

    I think you talked about sending me something, but never did.

    You’re all talk James17930.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, August 7, 2007 11:01 am

    Actually, now that I think of it, I seem to remember being on MSN with Sarah and trying to send it to her and it not working properly, then we forgot about it after that.

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