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It's no surprise to learn that, as a child in Montana, Decemberists front man Colin Meloy wanted desperately to be an elf. And it follows naturally from that for him to have grown into being a huge Morrissey and Robyn Hitchcock fanatic, as those are two of the most elfin singer-songwriters of all time. I recently saw Hitchcock perform solo in Austin, and it was easy to imagine at the end of his set that he would sprout wings and fly from the stage and into the night.
And Colin Meloy's vaguely nasal, droll and somewhat quavery tenor sounds just like Hitchcock's, right down to a strongly English feel, even if the Decemberists' music is unique and instantly recognizable as its own. Meloy is a survivor of the great alt-country crash-and-burn, and you can hear a smidgen of that, but as with Clem Snide and Calexico, you can also hear that several members of his band have jazz backgrounds. There's also Gypsy accordion and an obvious regard for hoary old folk from America and the British Isles.
And given the Decemberists' proclivity for sea shanties, it comes as no surprise to learn that Meloy is also a big fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin book series, from which the Hollywood blockbuster Master and Commander was drawn. "The film didn't quite do it justice -- the technical language in the books is amazing," Meloy says from his home in Portland. "I missed that."
Picaresque is the band's new album, and it's probably safe to call it their best to date, even if it is up against some stiff competition from earlier records. Co-produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, Picaresque was recorded in a disused Portland church-cum-Montessori school. Both the site and the producer helped afford the band greater creativity than they'd ever had before. "We have now established a really strong working relationship, with having already done The Tain with him," Meloy says of Walla and the 17-minute EP they recorded with him last year. "That was kind of a quick process, but we all got really tight. It was a really intensive, three-day thing where we slept on the floor at the studio. That helped to create this really tight bond with Walla creatively. So we swore we would do a full-length together, and this record was that opportunity."
Meloy believes that Walla had just as much fun working with the Decemberists as they had with him. "We turned this church into a studio and worked on the record for a month," he says. "I think the record kind of allowed us to think freely about how we wanted to go about recording it -- no idea was too crazy to try. With Death Cab for Cutie, granted they experiment, but they have a set way of doing things. But with us, for him it was really just a canvas for him just to mess around with his craziest ideas, and we're always game for that."
According to dictionary.com, "picaresque" means "a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society." Picaresque the album sticks pretty close to that idea, nowhere more so than on "The Mariner's Revenge Song," an epic, magic-realist narrative in which a wronged son finally avenges himself on the man who destroyed his mother's life only after the two of them are swallowed by a whale.
The protagonist of that song is one of the only characters on the album to achieve success in any traditional sense, even if he will surely die a slow, painful death by whale's digestive juices sooner or later. Elsewhere, there's the failed athlete of the balmy and mid-tempo "Sporting Life," and legions of doomed lovers in "We Both Go Down Together," "The Bagman's Gambit," "Eli the Barrow Boy" and others.
And then there's the devastated war widows of what for me is the album's (and possibly the year's) very best song, "16 Military Wives," on which, over huge-ass horns and roiling electric piano, Meloy laconically assails the Iraq war, the American media and the celebrity cult. His line "And the anchorperson on TV goes 'la-di-da-di-di-di-daaaa' " is devastating, as is the couplet that rips into grandstanding political celebs: "15 celebrity minds, leading their 15 sordid, wretched, checkered lives / Will they find the solution in time using their 15 pristine moderate liberal minds?" It's as great as Clem Snide's dig at Jewel on "Moment in the Sun": "I have a lot of things to say / and you'd be wise to listen good / I think that hunger, war and death / Are bringin' everybody down."
"In the Iraq war, when you boil it down, it's the tragedy of people dying that really should be capturing everybody's attention," Meloy says. "And so [the song] wouldn't be all one-sided, a cardboard cutout, it sort of criticizes the celebrity cult as well and the absurdity of that balanced against people dying. So we threw that in the mix in the second verse. There's something really absurd about that. American pop culture right now seems to be at this moment of supreme hubris, just waiting to be toppled. The last verse ["14 cannibal kings wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring / 15 celebrity heads served on a leafy bed of 16 military wives"] is sort of a reflection of what I think will be that inevitable toppling. And I hope that's not too far off -- hopefully the bigger that hubris grows, the greater that fall will be. I just think -- I just hope, that maybe after this administration passes into history, we can actually rediscover some humility."
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