I’ve been a fan of the Decemberists’s splendid music since their first album, Castaways and Cutouts. At the time, their music was pretty much like nothing else, other than, perhaps, Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (incidentally, I’m pleased to see that NMH’s Jeff Mangum appears to be making something of a comeback). Their lead singer and songwriter, Colin Meloy, wrote quirky little song-fables and performed them in a uniquely pleasing voice. John Peel once said that the Smiths were remarkable because you couldn’t tell what was in their record collection. Something of the same is true of the Decemberists, though it turned out that Meloy’s record collection included both the Smiths and a panoply (a very Meloy word) of English folk artists.
Over their last couple of CDs, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists have been exploring some of those English folk roots and moving in what some might characterise as a ‘progressive’ direction. Both are thoroughly fine records and include some great individual songs, but the quasi-prog ambitions tended, for me at least, to make them a harder listen than their earlier work. Their new CD, The King is Dead, therefore, is both a surprise and a delight. They’ve moved in yet another direction – this time supposedly drawing on US folk traditions – and produced a relatively straightforward set of standalone songs. And it’s quite stunning. The songs seem simpler and more direct than anything Meloy’s done before, with melodies that lock into your head so quickly that it feels as if you’ve known them for years. The words are as intriguing as ever, if sounding more personal, and Meloy’s singing is just as distinctive but a little less mannered than on earlier records. And the band sound terrific, with a new rocky edge mingled with snatches of folk-song and rousing harmonica from Meloy than sounds as if it might have been borrowed from a Neil Young or Springsteen record.
Despite loving their music for years, I’d somehow never contrived to see the Decemberists live, so I was particularly pleased to follow up my first listens to the new record with their performance in Manchester last week. Smiths fan Meloy said that, as a teenager, he’d always thought of Manchester as a mythical place, like Oz or Narnia (this impression probably doesn’t survive too long a walk up Oxford Road), and the place certainly seemed to bring out the best in him and the band. My first thought was how versatile the band was – shifting effortlessly from folk to prog to semi-psychedelic to music hall while always remaining distinctively the Decemberists. My second thought was not to think, but just to bathe in the music and a theatrical performance from Meloy that remained just the right side of cheesy. The band ended with a splendidly over-the-top performance of their song ‘The Mariner’s Revenge’ (with the audience being asked to impersonate the sound of a large number of people being eaten by a whale. You probably had to be there), a beautiful reading of the delicate ‘June Hymn’ from the new album, and, fittingly, a nicely low-key rendition of the Smiths’s ‘Ask’. A rather wonderful evening, all told.