The Decemberists return after their US No.1 album The King Is Dead, bearing wry observations and stories of people with sweet melodies for old fans of English Folk and REM. Vocally, Colin Meloy has mixed a pinch of Jackson Browne, with a smidgeon of Robyn Hitchcock, a slice of Al Stewart, a wedge of Michael Stipe, a drop of Morrissey, a teaspoonful of Billy Bragg and a healthy dose of any British Folk revival singer of the Sixties you care to mention.
The album opens with The Singer Addresses His Audience and one wonders if a concept album similar to The Hazards Of Love is revealing itself, but no, it’s just an idea for a song. One wonders if Meloy is condescendingly taking us through the story of a band that doesn’t have his principles (surely not) or whether he simply enjoys the idea of a song about the fan band relationship and the irresistible appeal of money for selling out to shampoo manufacturers at the expense of the shattered initial musical philosophy that made the fans love them in the first place.
The musical commercial appeal of Cavalry Captain is hard to ignore but lyrically it may be a little too esoteric for a mainstream American audience, I imagine he might find an ear for this in England.
Catchy, nursery rhyme tunes continue with Philomena and lyrics that capture the changes in adolescence, in this case wanting more from the opposite sex than the early dream of simple exposure to the exciting concept of female nudity for the first time.
It’s at this point that you realise that The Decemberists tick a lot of boxes for their fans. They are easy on the ear, lyrically engaging, recognising everyday middle class woes and wonders. There’s no sexy beats, no glamour, just an entourage of educated and rational musicians minding their own business, harmlessly commenting on themselves their immediate surroundings and perhaps some fantastic facts they may have read about in real books, with print and paper pages.
I’d hate to think that they ever have arguments, they seem too level headed for all that nonsense and one imagines them to be the perfect band. Sadly Jenny Conlee, keyboardest was fighting a breast cancer scare in 2011 and one hopes with all one’s heart that this perfect band is not upset with tragedy – they/she simply don’t deserve it.
Lake Song seems like something that Don McLean might have recorded on one of his billion selling mid-seventies albums, except that with British influence, it seems like the ghost of Nick Drake might have sat down for dinner to share a piece of this American Pie. It’s lovely, it makes you sway, Sandy Denny would love it too but she would go further and record the next track Till The Water’s All Long Gone on Fotheringay’s next album should there have been one.
The Wrong Year is perhaps the sweetest of all as the album seems to have it’s best tracks plum in the middle. Natalie Merchant might want to cover this song on her next solo album, it’s perfect for her voice. 10,000 Maniacs must wonder why they split up when they hear The Decemberists. Perhaps they didn’t have that intrinsic calm that the Decemberists have, that intelligence, that banishing of ego, that intriguing positive ordinariness that embraces and shares rather than excludes.
The totally folk Better Not Wake The Baby illustrates perfectly Colin Meloy’s appeal. His voice talks to you directly, he sounds kind, trustworthy. I’ve seen The Decemberists live and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. At one point he had 1,100 people under his spell suggesting that everyone should sit on the floor. With no resistance at all the audience obliged and waited to be told when they could stand up again. It’s not like he sings you into his heart, it’s more like he wins you with the generosity of his personality.
The album peters out for me towards the end with some bland traditional ditties that might be anyone. Anti-Summersong, Easy Come Easy Go but perhaps that’s not how the audience sees it. Sing-alongs are always a hit for the fans, that and swaying are food for an audience.
Then, on 12/17/12 the date of Barack Obama’s speech after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, Melroy suddenly has to question his own happiness alongside the innocent awful massacre of strangers’ children, victims of that madness that the world unleashes out of nowhere in the middle of the morning, unexpectedly. Somewhere someone is falling in love whilst simulataneouly someone is being murdedred. It’s this consideration that takes Melroy out of joy into contemplation and through that speech by the President, gives him the title of the album.
Mistrial really could be REM and whether that is a criticism, a hinderance or a helping hand to fill the void that REM left when they broke up is anyone’s guess. Of course The Decemberists don’t have the precise jangle of Peter Buck or REM’s effortless occasional throwaway Poppiness. Chris Funk plays the role of multi-instrumentalist rather better than dedicated guitarist but the band isn’t about guitar parts or guitar tones. The band are the vehicle for the songs and like Ringo, The Decemberists with Nate Query on bass and John Moen on drums might only work as well as they do because it’s them. Long may their love of life and each other continue.
What a gift, what a gift you can give me
Here with my heart so whole
While others may be grieving
Think of their grieving
And oh my boy
Don’t you know you are dear to me
You are a breath of life
And a light upon the water
A light upon the water
And, oh my love
If you only knew how I long for you
How I waste my days wishing you would come around
Just to have you around
And what a dear
What a sweet little baby
This cannonball in the bosom of your belly
It’s just a kick in your belly
And oh my god
What a world you have made here
What a terrible world, what a beautiful world
What a world you have made here