No other contemporary band has been as intellectually satisfying as the Decemberists, and so consistently over so many years. The satisfaction, of course, stems from the feeling so rare of being exactly the target audience. Nothing wrong with being a lowest-common-denominator pop fan, but have you ever experienced a mind-meld of esoteric interest with a complete stranger? Colin Meloy writes for people who want listening to a record to feel similar to submerging into a good book. The Crane Wife, out of all of the albums (Decemberists or otherwise) really provides the satisfaction of a series of well-told stories.
If you’ve read Myla Goldberg’s acclaimed novel Bee Season, you’ll be able to grasp the allusions here. I have not, myself, nor have I seen the movie. So the allusions, for now, escape me. It makes great sense, though, that Colin Meloy, a musician who dabbles in literature, and Goldberg, a novelist who dabbles in music, have a mutual-admiration friendship thing going on. It’s honestly heartwarming. Like a power summit of the most outstanding young-ish intellectuals.
The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.
The single most blood-curdling lullaby you’ll ever hear. And it becomes even more chilling when you learn that it’s very much based on real history. The real-life Shankill Butchers were a kill-squad within the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force who went about kidnapping and murdering Catholics during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I much recommend learning about the political history of Ireland, because if nothing else it will deepen your understanding of all the pop culture that the Irish have produced. (It’s also quite the cautionary tale about the English people’s boundless desire to colonize literally everyone including their next-door neighbors.) If you don’t feel like doing the research, then the Decemberists have done it for you.
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.