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.