If a band's discography were viewed through a literary lens, the Decemberists' eight studio albums would take up many bookshelves, running the gamut from the Southern gothic melancholia of William Faulkner to Willa Cather's windswept frontier dreams. There would be avian-minded Japanese folk tales, esoteric Russian mythology, perhaps a martini-soaked twist of Dorothy Parker's wit, and the childlike spirit of Maurice Sendak's fantastical journeys. Maybe Homer's The Odyssey and Shakespearean sonnets too.
After all, the Decemberists lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy moonlights as a children's novelist (the Wildwood Chronicles, The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid), and that bibliophilic appeal might account for why the band's admirers revere the richly-drawn, complex characters cavorting through favorites like 2003's "I Was Meant for the Stage," the concert warhorse "The Mariner's Revenge Song," and "O Valencia." (Although the band's more ardent fans are delicately taken to task in "The Singer Addresses His Audience" and "Anti-Summersong.") The group's videos even have had a decidedly literary bent: the clip for 2011's "Calamity Jane," from The King is Dead, used David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest as a template.
But the Decemberists — presently Meloy and multi-instrumentalists Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen (past members were Jesse Emerson, Ezra Holbrook and Rachel Blumberg) — are also quite adept when it comes to not-as-esoteric tracks too, like The King is Dead's semi-autobiographical "Rise to Me," the chiming majesty of "Make You Better," from What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World or even the dark Gary Numan-meets-Neu! pulse of "Severed," from the band's 2018 synth-drenched album, I'll Be Your Girl. The magic of the Decemberists' music is rooted in a delicious and daring hodgepodge of big ideas and intimate, sophisticated arrangements; fragile folk sojourns brush up nonchalently against grand chamber pop which segues to epic, ten-minute prog rock goliaths. They've used the Greek bouzouki as a focal point (2006's The Crane Wife), conceptualized a rock opera (2009's The Hazards of Love), and written formidable protest songs, like Picaresque's "16 Military Wives."
Home base is Portland, Oregon which, despite its sometimes twee reputation (and yes, Meloy was in the fake "Portlandia" band Echo Echo with James Mercer and Corin Tucker), still serves an artistic haven for musicians searching for community and cohesion, even for a band that's been together for 18 years and is signed to a major label, Capitol Records. (Their first label was the iconic Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars). There have been notable Decemberists hiatuses along the way, prompted by Meloy's writing, Conlee's health (she's a breast cancer survivor), and the side project Black Prairie (with Conlee, Funk, Query and Moen).
But as of 2018, the quintet is back with an eighth album splashed with Eighties effervescence, I'll Be Your Girl — but it's hardly a carefree New Wave redux, despite its brightly-hued melodies. Outrage over today's governmental bedlam is the album's lyrical undertow ("Severed"), and the Decemberists' new collection churns with dark declarations ("Everything is Awful") and prickly and pointed black humor ("We All Die Young").
As a bonus, they even hooked up last year with Hamilton auteur Lin-Manuel Miranda, singing his lyrics for the gloriously cussy "Ben Franklin's Song" for Miranda's "Hamildrops" project of excised songs from the Tony-winning musical.
As FUV celebrates the Decemberists' latest album, I'll Be Your Girl, we're spending the week revisting classic FUV Live sessions with a band that's never shied from its restless eclecticism, passion for language, bold theatricality, and philosophical examinations of the endless cycle of life and death. Poets and rock 'n' roll revolutionaries, the Decemberists are FUV Essentials.
#FUVEssentials: The Decemberists (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Russ Borris)