The Decemberists have not only mastered the trick of writing songs that sound like they might belong in a different decade; they write songs that sound like they could be hundreds of years old. On a superficial level, we think we know what the trick is: the trick is that a well-deployed mandolin or fiddle goes a long way towards making something sound ‘traditional’. But there’s plenty of fiddle-laden songs that still sound like the hot millennial garbage that they are. To sound traditional, you have to learn about tradition. It’s having an ear for history, if you will. It’s being the kind of music nerd who knows their way around madrigals and pibrochs. And it’s knowing how to deploy the lowly fiddle without sounding like it’s hoedown night at the Old West Saloon.
This Decemberists songs isn’t referencing Greek mythology or English literature or 1970’s folk music. It isn’t referencing any cultural artifacts at all. Its inspiration is much closer to home than all that. Colin Meloy wrote the song for his son Henry, who was about five years old at the time and diagnosed with autism. Meloy is hardly the first person to write about the fears and struggles of raising a child, but the difficulty of raising one whose brain works so differently lends it added pathos. Parenting can be a source of existential angst, I’ve been told, unique from the usual day to day angst of just living. Which could also be a source of creative inspiration, if children weren’t so damn labor-intensive and distracting. That’s probably not why the pool of pop songs inspired by children is relatively small (writers of pop songs can afford childcare, usually.) It’s just that nobody wants to hear a pop song about being responsible and sleep-deprived from constant worry; those things are most people’s daily reality. We want our pop stars to be sleep-deprived from cocaine binges and consequence-free sex.
Does it always look so gray, before the fall?
It’s been a record year for a lot of things, none of them good. Some of us are making peace with saying goodbye to the world as we know it. We may be witnessing the fall of an empire, not from a safe distance – because there is no such thing – but in the front and center of the world’s arena. And yet, as people are wont to do, we go about our lives amidst catastrophes and insist that our lives are meaningful and our feelings are the most important thing at stake at any given time. It is a wonder, maybe a miracle of some sort, that people in a dying world still believe that their love is not like any other love, or even that they still take the time to love at all. (Don’t get me started on people who still think that passing on their genetic material is somehow a good idea.) The world may still end with a bang, which might just be the best we can hope for, but for most of us, it’s going to end with a mournful song. We may be neck deep in record rainfall but we still want to be told that our feelings amount to a hill of beans in this world. And that’s why we have art, ladies and gentlemen.
Here is a song about infanticide, and I couldn’t be more here for that. I can’t condone the practice itself, but I’m also tired of hearing about love all the time. It takes a brave creative visionary to make such a dark and twisted little song and make it their big hit single, but The Decemberists are nothing if not uniquely visionary. They know, even if you don’t, that epic narrative songs about horrific things used to be every bard and minstrel’s bread and butter. Perhaps not so much the cold-blooded sociopathy narrated here, but definitely murder and bloodshed galore. How do you think people entertained themselves before God created binge-watching? They wanted to hear about, in great detail, what terrible things could befall those less fortunate than themselves, just as we do. This isn’t a novelty song that somehow found its way onto indie radio, it’s the scion of a narrative folktale tradition as old and deep rooted as human language itself. It reflects what evils humans may do, and the cultural salves we create to comfort each other. Narratives tie us together, they warn and educate, they condemn and they comfort. The night is, in fact, dark and full of terrors.
You turn to the Decemberists, like you turn to a midcentury novel, for reminders of the near-forgotten; words and concepts like ‘spinster’, ‘always the bridesmaid’, even ‘raincoat’. Literature and music have always been better at recording history than history itself, in the biased hands of historians, ever has. We look back at the last stretch of living memory, and its memorabilia, and witness society steadily lurching itself out of the dark ages. Here it stands, a bit battered, unsteady on its feet, still coated with the filth of history, but at we’re slouching forward, at least. Nobody says spinster anymore, but unmarried women are still treated like apples rotting under the tree. We can toss our raincoats aside and blithely not own an umbrella, because we’re children of science who don’t remember that a sniffle and a cough used to foreshadow a visit from the grim reaper. Sometimes it seems that the only reason we remember history at all is because it still clings to our language.
When you think of The Decemberists, burning eroticism is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. (Or maybe it does, I don’t know what you’re into.) But if this Decemberists song were a novel, it would be an historical bodice ripper (or, at the very least, some very adult Anne of Green Gables fan fic.) A tale of forbidden love set in some prudish isolated community in mid-1800’s Montana, in which the ambitious young schoolteacher falls clandestinely in love with the postmaster’s lonely unwed daughter. It doesn’t have to be the kind of book that has the title printed in cursive, slightly raised, lavender letters. It could, in fact, be serious work of highbrow fiction, preferably written by Louise Erdrich or Annie Proulx. Or, oh, maybe Maile Meloy. Or Colin himself. I’m starting to really want to read this book. Maybe I should just write it myself.
Nobody exceeds at the fine art of narrative songs like the Decemberists. Small wonder Colin Meloy writes children’s books in his spare time; I haven’t read them but I would and I would read any adult book he might write. In the meantime, we can enjoy the most literary canon in pop music right now. The Decemberists’ discography is more like a miniature library stuffed with novels, leaning heavily towards historical fiction, but also not without the serious family dramas, not without explorations of folklore, not without the fantasy epic, and not without the occasional hard boiled crime thriller. If the diversity of subjects and genres is any clue, I’d guess that Meloy is the kind of person who picks up boxes of books at garage sales and behind dumpsters, then reads all of them.