The Decemberists have, to my knowledge, never been cool. Even at the height of the indie rock scene where bands were beginning to move from obscurity to mainstream fame, the Decemberists were a band relegated to that obscure corner of music where only the “hard-core hippies” like to hang out (where they often enjoy smoking out of antiquated pipes and write lengthy blog posts using typewriters).
Comprised of songwriter Colin Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, John Moen on the drums, Jenny Conlee on keyboard and accordion and Nate Query on bass, the Decemberists were a cast of characters almost as colourful as the characters in their songs.
That’s not to say that the Decemberists haven’t found any sort of fame, of course. There can be no denying that they have a large, dedicated fanbase. Their sixth studio album, The King Is Dead, reached the top of the US Billboard Charts, selling an impressive 94,000 copies in its debut week.
There’s just something about the Decemberists that makes it hard to sell as anything other than hipster fare. Maybe it’s their sound, or maybe it’s the subject matter of their songs, or maybe it’s because of songwriter Colin Meloy’s love of $10 words. Maybe (read: more than likely) it’s all of these things.
It’s these reasons that even the Decemberists’ greatest fans have issues trying to sell you on the band.
But if you listen to some of their songs, you’ll find a sound unique to them and them alone. Even signed to a major record companies, like Capitol Records, the Decemberists have no trouble taking major creative risks.
The Crane Wife, perhaps their best and most well-received albums, is an ambitious and extremely well-crafted release. Each of the 10 songs on the album has its own distinctive sound and feel.
There’s the band’s classic folk-rock style in songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “O Valencia!”, but they also bring in an epic multi-part prog track in “The Island” and smuggler’s blues in “The Perfect Crime #2”.
This is not to mention the album’s stand out track from which it gets its name, “The Crane Wife”.
Split into three parts and spanning a total of 15 minutes, “The Crane Wife” is a perfect example of the Decemberists’ meld of storytelling and music into one distinct and wholly original package – featuring a tragic love story told in three parts, based on a traditional Japanese folktale.
Each of the Decemberists’ albums comes with its own distinct flavour.
The Hazards of Love was their most ambitious album. Created as a rock opera, where a single story is told over the course of the album, the band wove together music and story into an album of woeful tragedy and love. The hour-long prog rock album brought out the rock in indie rock and gave guitarist Chris Funk his chance to shine as he lets off epic riffs on songs like “The Wanting Comes in Waves”.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, their latest album released in 2015, demonstrated songwriter and singer Colin Meloy’s continued dedication to avoiding “sellout-itis” as he continued to evolve. The album showed a more mature band as they put out songs carefully poking at the changes they experienced as a result of being in a successful band.
I love the Decemberists, and while that may violate the rule about staying objective and so on, I have no issues with that. The Decemberists are a band close to my heart and I discovered them at a very young age. They were, and still are, an integral part of who I am.
The first album I owned was their 2003 album, Castaways and Cutouts, back when I was 10. I remember how I listened to that album on repeat, over and over, until I could finally scrounge up enough cash for their next album, which was their 2006 Crane Wife.
The Decemberists showed me a side of music that I never thought existed. They broadened my horizons and I wish I could personally thank them for it.
The Decemberists have, to my knowledge, never been cool. And I suppose that was never the point. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time where they will be considered cool.
The Decemberists are unique. And that, to me, is way better than cool.