The Decemberists rode the wave of early 21st century Indie to success, attracting attention with their predilection for historic epics and olde English folk music. They hail from Portland, Oregon, but the band was named for the Decembrist Revolution in 19th century Imperial Russia. The band’s invented back story describes how they met in a Turkish bathhouse and how they only travel by dirigible balloon.
Front-man Colin Meloy is the band’s leader, writing their material, often in a storytelling mode that recalls historical events and uses long words. Meloy is an anglophile, whose favourite music includes The Smiths, Shirley Collins, and The Waterboys. The band’s folk rock often features acoustic instruments like bouzouki and accordion, and they’ve dabbled in genres like progressive rock and Americana.
The Decemberists have attracted ridicule for their grandiose concepts, but I’ve always enjoyed them – although as a bearded, thirty-something history graduate, I’m essentially their target demographic. Here are their eight studio albums to date, ranked from worst to best.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World repeats the stripped down sound of The King is Dead. The band’s grand concepts are tucked away, replaced by more personal songs from Meloy. But at 57 minutes of unambitious material, What a Terrible World… outstays its welcome, despite highlights like ‘Calvary Captain’ and ‘Philomena’.
What a terrible world, what a beautiful world12/17/12
I’ll Be Your Girl
Most bands’ output diminishes in productivity and focus as its members grow older and start families. This is particularly evident for The Decemberists. As well as family responsibilities, Meloy’s enjoying a parallel career as a children’s writer. I’ll Be Your Girl is The Decemberists least coherent album, trying different styles with little focus. The band adding 1980s synths to their sonic palette, but the best song is the folk epic ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes’.
Come down, my little darling, oh farther come inRusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes
For deeper the water, the sweeter the sin
Her Majesty The Decemberists
The Decemberists’ second album captures them at their most theatrical, with songs like ‘I Was Meant For The Stage’. But Her Majesty The Decemberists often feels too light on musical ideas, overwhelmed by the group’s mid 19th century whimsy.
All a-drifting, he’s a nogood boyoBilly Liar
Sent a-fishing for a whalebone corset frame
(His only catch all day)
The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists had previously flirted with multi-part suites and progressive rock, but the entirety of The Hazards of Love is given over to an hour long rock opera. Guest vocalists like My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond sing the roles of characters along with Meloy, including the Forest Queen and a shape-shifter. I enjoy the folk and progressive rock palette of this record – it’s sometimes reminiscent of Jethro Tull – but it suffers from the standard weaknesses of rock operas, like repeated melodic ideas.
And painting rings around your eyes these peppered holes so filled with cryingThe Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
A whisper weighed upon the tattered down where you and I were lying
The exaggerated Victorian theatricality of Her Majesty the Decemberists was an evolutionary dead end, and the group reinvigorated themselves with the poppier Picaresque. There are great pop tunes like the brassy ’16 Military Wives’ and the acoustic ‘The Engine Driver’, although Meloy’s lyrics are too grandiloquent for mainstream radio. But the album suffers from the long and salty narrative of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’; a fun story that doesn’t offer enough musically to hold up for multiple listens.
Fifteen celebrity minds16 Military Wives
Leading their fifteen sordid, wretched, checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen crispy moderate liberal minds
Castaways and Cutouts
Meloy had already made an album with Tarkio, and the group had already released the EP 5 Songs, so it’s not surprising that The Decemberists started strongly. Their debut album is assured, with their historical shtick and prominent acoustic instrumentation already in place. Opener ‘Leslie Anne Levine’ stakes out their career territory beautifully – a dark tale with a pretty acoustic arrangement.
My name is Leslie Anne LevineLeslie Anne Levine
My mother birthed me down a dry ravine
My mother birthed me far too soon
Born at nine and dead at noon
The Crane Wife
The Crane Wife marks the end of The Decemberists’ initial burst of creativity, their fourth album in just over four years. It’s divided between long, prog-rock flavoured songs like ‘The Island’, and succinct, accessible pieces like ‘Summersong’ and ‘Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)’. With this balance, it’s probably the most representative of the group’s oeuvre; it’s a great place to start with their music.
Its contents watched by SycoraxThe Island
And Patagon in parallax
The King is Dead
The Decemberists streamlined for the new decade, stripping back their material to short, succinct songs, and showcasing a sound that leaned more heavily on Americana than on British influences. The group, aided by collaborators like Peter Buck, Gillian Welch, and Dave Rawlings, serve up a terrific set of songs like the rollicking ‘Rox in the Box’ and the pastoral prettiness of ‘January Hymn’.
Hail the winter days after darkJanuary Hymn
Wandering the gray memorial park
A fleeting beating of hearts
Are you a fan of The Decemberists? What’s your favourite album?