Matt and Tim get to talkin’ again, and this time they settle on a band both of them hold dear. The Decemberists, fresh off of a new album, I’ll Be Your Girl, are the subject of this particular debate…and there’s certainly more debate than usual. What follows is a lightly edited conversation in lieu of a podcast.
Tim: Back again (after a surprisingly short hiatus) with more conversations. The things you do when every piece of technology both of us own hates us. Hi, Matt.
Matt: Hey Tim. As we pour one out for our collective technology, want to tell the people the day’s topic?
Tim: We are wandering into a purely musical conversation, which is sort of new for us, but we’re doing it on terrain that I feel comfortable with: we are discussing The Decemberists.
Matt: As we’ve just discovered, a surprising amount of TV shows in particular do. Here’s a question for you: without looking, what’s the top listed song for The Decemberists on Spotify?
Tim: Barf! I have no idea. Is it…”Don’t Carry It All?” “Down by the Water?”
Matt: “Don’t Carry It All” …. Which would never have been my guess.
Tim: My first guess was right?
Matt: Unless you cheated, yes.
Tim: I think I have ESPN or something. I sort of went the cynical route and assumed it had to be off of The King Is Dead.
Matt: “Down by the Water” would have been high on my guess list. Here’s a related observation. I don’t know how to finagle Spotify to show me just “most played,” so I’m working of their vague “Popular” list that accounts for rate of play in recent weeks/months. Tell me how many songs pre-The King is Dead appear in the top-10.
Tim: I say three. Call me an optimist.
Matt: I’m having a hard time believing you aren’t cheating.
Tim: I’m touching my boobs and I’m pretty sure there’s a 40% chance it’s already raining.
Matt: I wasn’t planning on going this far, but now we need a heat check.
Tim: “Heat check” = “burning me if I’m a witch.”
Matt: Like bridges and very small rocks.
Name the three songs.
Tim: I’ll take…”O Valencia,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and “Eli, the Barrow Boy.”
Matt: Wrong on all three, so I don’t have to burn you today.
Tim: Aw, I love happy endings.
Matt: Hey oh.
“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” is third.
Tim: I bet I know why, too.
Matt: Go on.
Tim: It was at the end of a How I Met Your Mother episode some years ago, one that focused on Ted being an architect.
Matt: Another show using the Decemberists!
Tim: There’s also that incredibly jarring use of “The Infanta” at the beginning of…some episode of Mad Men. “Maidenform,” I think.
Matt: That one I have seen but totally forgot about until you said it.
Continuing on, “Crane Wife pt. 3” is fifth. And, here’s the surprising one to me, but maybe it was in a different TV show, “Sons and Daughters” is seventh.
Tim: A quick Google search suggests it was on an episode of The Office I never saw. (Also while we’re here they were legitimately on Parks and Rec. Everywhere, I say!)
Matt: Perfect. Dear me their songs get around.
Otherwise there are four songs from their newest album (which makes sense given how the algorithm works), “Ben Franklin’s Song” (also not that surprising as a recent release), and “Down by the Water.” Besides wanting to watch Tim guess (which he is better at than I realized on this front) I bring this up because I feel like it will be pertinent to our general Decemberists opinions. Put differently, I suspect the songs we think are best aren’t on this “Popular” list, even if I could get it up to top-20. I will also add that their “monthly listeners” metric is at 910,527, which seems a bit low for how often their songs end up in things? What do you think about what the Spotify list tells us?
Tim: This is probably just my own prejudice speaking, because I’d say they were my favorite band for about five years, but I think the songs/albums that casual Decemberists fans like and diehard Decemberists fans like are really quite different. And I think it also shows us that they’re tough to categorize or, maybe more topically, tough to algorithm. Accurately predicting whether someone will like Napoleon Dynamite on Netflix is that streaming service’s bugaboo. I don’t think The Decemberists are that polarizing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were tough to nail down.
Matt: In the way that some bands/artists have pretty big gaps between critical and popular consensus, The Decemberists have that with types of fans, as you say. Which, if you gave me that list of ten and asked “is this representative of what you like about the Decemberists” I would say hell no.
Tim: I think I’m one of those “types of fans.”
Matt: With all of that in mind, should we launch in? We’re going for a ranking, yeah? Or should we approach the album-by-album thing differently?
Tim: I’m sort of interested in the band as a growing/evolving entity, seeing as they’re…gosh, two decades old? Almost?
Matt: Their first EP (“Five Songs”) came out in 2002. So save a few years before for formation and practice and yeah, we’re looking at nearly 20 years.
Tim: So the thing that always interests me about fandom is the way that we want our…product, I guess…to fit the mold of what we’ve seen from the artist before. But we also don’t want literally the same thing. It’s such a difficult road to walk down, because, as Neil Gaiman says, “they would like another one of those, please,” but speaking as a fan, I respect that these people are changing as artists and musicians, and it hardly seems right to hold them back. But what happens when a group evolves to the point where they hardly seem recognizable? That’s more or less my Decemberists story; I listened to them religiously, got excited that The King Is Dead got good reviews, and then basically dropped them after that. I only recently went back to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and like, just listened to I’ll Be Your Girl for the first time. I suppose my question here is something like, “How do we interact with the work we don’t care for while still recognizing the people behind the work we like from before?”
Matt: I’ll Be Your Girl makes this question especially evident for me. There are some interesting New Wave style experimentations on the new album, but Meloy is filled with an indignation that doesn’t appear much in the early work (or appears in better stories anyway). Lyrically, it feels like he took “Sons and Daughters” and keeps writing that structure, but it doesn’t work over an entire album. Which is to say, I think each new Decemberists album comes out of a previous song or stretch but they keep picking weird ones to build from. On the one hand, good for them. I want them to stay interested enough to keep making music and feel invigorated. As much as I would love more of what makes me love them, that would get boring. So it’s tough. I’m glad they can keep themselves going and interested, but I certainly prefer an earlier version of them.
Which, remembering the Spotify stuff, clearly isn’t the case for everyone.
Tim: I’m going to make a cinema analogy to answer this question, because we have to sneak that in here someway. For me, I think about directors who have these long careers (I go back to Hitchcock, Bergman, and Ford in particular for this thought experiment) and I want to look at their oeuvres thematically. Bergman, for example, has this running question in his work about faith, and that question evolves from his early stuff to his later stuff. When I listen to The Decemberists, I can trace thematic elements—and really interesting ones too!—from the earliest work to The Hazards of Love or so. And then I start to lose the trail in King, find it a little in Terrible World, and then lost it almost entirely in I’ll Be Your Girl. Like, I look at them primarily through a storytelling aspect, especially how who tells the story strongly influences the story itself. Do you feel like that’s showing up a lot in the last three albums? Or maybe in I’ll Be Your Girl specifically? Or am I off the deep end a little?
Matt: The storytelling element has taking a back seat. But, this is why “Rusalka, Rusalka” is the best song on I’ll Be Your Girl.
Tim: It sure is!
Matt: I disagree to some extent though. I can definitely find musical throughlines, even from the old stuff to the new three. The biggest difference is what Meloy is interested in writing. And maybe Meloy in general, he’s definitely become a focal point in a way that I don’t think he used to be.
Tim: I don’t mean to emphasize the storytelling aspect at the expense of other things…there are certainly melodies and ideas on those last three that match earlier stuff. I agree about Meloy and I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before right now.
Matt: He’s become, like, an actual frontman. Or wants to be one? It’s weird. I don’t mean that as a dig at his charisma or ability or anything, it’s just that he was never bigger than the band for me but he’s trending toward that as the newer releases become more singer-songwriter like.
The Hazards of Love is this grand, bombastic (wonderful) proggy thing, and The King is Dead is a hard reset from that where Meloy becomes the individual folky type, which is carrying through on subsequent releases.
Tim: I really want to know how much this band looks at Mumford and Sons or Kings of Leon, or, barring them, whoever’s producing/selling their music looks at them and says, “The Decemberists can do that sort of empty-headed folksy thing too and we’ll sell way more albums.”
Matt: I have long Mumford rants that I’m not going to get into. There’s still a bookish wit to The Decemberists that sets them apart from totally empty-headed folk (coughMumfordcough).
Tim: I agree. I think it’s all sort of connected, though, even if no one involved with the group is saying out loud. That push towards folksy, which really works (for the people who dig it) largely because of Meloy’s distinctive voice, is tied in with him becoming a more standout member of the group.
Matt: Absolutely. Folk is usually a more individual oriented genre. For every Okervvil River or Avett Brothers that I could point to as a good folk band that is thoroughly a band, there are at least 10 solo folk artists that are way more popular.
Tim: I wonder if we are overlooking the fact that all of these people in the band are over forty now.
Matt: I wasn’t thinking about their ages specifically above, but I was thinking something similar when I was saying I’m glad they’ve found ways to keep themselves engaged and making music. Our taste as fans changes over time, so do the artists. People in their forties aren’t going to make the same music as in their 20s. Unless it’s, like, the Rolling Stones and then you’re basically an embalmed figure.
Tim: I know I said I didn’t have a plan for this, but I am also surprised that we started off by going in this very broad direction first.
Matt: Should we do what we did for the PTA one, or go chronologically? I have a hard ranking if you do too, but we don’t necessarily have to go that route.
Tim: …spitball for three minutes and I’ll have something.
Matt: Oh man. As you’ve probably guessed by now, Tim and I prefer older Decemberists albums. There’s a decently sized contingency of people in my life who name The King is Dead in particular as the best album. I think those people are wrong, but I’m not as flippant about the position as I used to be because I’ve spent more time trying to figure out from where the folk impulse emerged. The Decemberists will always make good sounding and well produced records, they’re too professional not to, but I’m worried that they’ve abandoned something that made their initial albums sound so vital. The King is Dead, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and I’ll Be Your Girl are similar to an extent, but musically each one has a unique branch of the tree. So I’m interested to see if they keep experimenting with future albums. They don’t seem to be resting, which is exciting even if I don’t connect with the newer output.
Tim: That was good! That was like, the introduction we probably should have done earlier but didn’t do. Do you have tiers for yours or just a ranking?
Matt: Erm, definitely the latter. Can probably make the former right quick.
Tim: No, it’s okay. I tried tiers but didn’t really like how it worked out.
So Matt and I made one of our idiosyncratic choices and decided to rank albums and one The Tain. Their cuts from albums as well as stuff like Always the Bridesmaid we are leaving alone. So that means we’re ranking Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty, The Tain, Picaresque, The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love, The King Is Dead, What a Beautiful World What a Terrible World, and I’ll Be Your Girl.
Matt: And, ostensibly, we’ll end up with an averaged list and be able to tell all of you, definitively, the best Decemberist album.
Tim: Wanna do that first and then work from there?
Matt: Sounds good.
From worst to best I have….
Tim: Oh, that’s not dramatic. What’s…ninth?
Matt: Ninth is (drum roll) What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World
Tim: We have diverged already! I’ll Be Your Girl is ninth for me.
Matt: Woo! Dissent! Why is the new one last for you?
Tim: I liked The Smiths more when there was just one of them and they weren’t incredibly synthy.
Matt: I like synth.
Tim: You’re talking to the guy who unironically likes ABBA and thinks Vangelis is one of the three or four greatest film composers of all time.
Matt: The real reason WaBWWaTW is last for me is because I’m not interested in any of the songs.
Tim: Okay, that’s basically where I am for almost everything on I’ll Be Your Girl. I think I’m a little nostalgic about some of the stuff on…Terrible World, which is somehow shorter than abbreviating it. “Cavalry Captain” reminds me of something like “The Engine Driver,” which is a song I’ve outgrown but which belongs to a subset of songs like “Red Right Ankle” and “July, July!” in which all of the verses are sort of connected but not really and the chorus is really doing the heavy lifting.
Matt: I love “Red Right Ankle,” you shut your face.
Tim: These are some of my favorites, too, but I think where they’re similar is the structure of the songs themselves. “Cavalry Captain” is almost certainly the worst of that number, but it’s like them.
Matt: You’re not wrong, but that’s also why Terrible World makes me sad. It’s the most annoying impulses from The King is Dead mixed with bad (or just meh) attempts at song styles they’ve done before. I’m annoyed by “Cavalry Captain” precisely because it sounds like something of, say Her Majesty but isn’t nearly as exciting or even interesting. I guess I’m saying Terrible World strikes me as rote.
Tim: I think there’s something very focus group about Terrible World. But it has a few songs I like and I think would like more if I had no idea who made them. I agree with you, though, that Terrible World is definitely more full of songs that I didn’t react to at all than any other Decemberists album.
Matt: “Make You Feel Better” is okay until the chorus hits. They move up a key and it just doesn’t work. “The Wrong Year” has a sort of “Summersong” thing going on but becomes grating. Speaking of “Summersong,” there’s “Anti-Summersong” which is Meloy disavowing some of their previous output. This, to me, is where, to borrow an old phrase from you, Meloy started to smell his own musk and I have less and less interest in it as the years pass.
Tim: I have a former assistant principal you need to meet so you can shake her hand for that phrase. “The Singer Address His Audience” is flat out obnoxious. One of my least favorite things that bands do (and directors, ugh) is start referencing their own work and where they’ve been with this sort of gawping fascination. It just shows all too often that they’re not interested enough in what’s outside themselves.
Matt: If Terrible World were all in the vein of “Till the Water’s All Gone” or “Carolina Low” I might not be as annoyed by it (still bored, but not as annoyed), but that’s not good praise for songs I think I might like.
To be clear, I also don’t think I’ll Be Your Girl has good songs, save for 2 or 3 at most, but it’s a new sound and I appreciate an attempt I don’t like more than a recreation of something I don’t want more of. Which, having said that, I have I’ll Be Your Girl eighth – which I don’t mean to push us along, just that I’m low on both albums.
Tim: Not at all. I had Terrible World seventh, so it’s not like that one really speaks to me either. Aside from my quippy response earlier (which I stand by), I’ll Be Your Girl really doesn’t have a lot that drew me in other than “Rusalka, Rusalka,” which I thought was fabulous and like, where have they been hiding that song for the last eight years?
Matt: I was tangibly relieved to know they can still write something like that. “Rusalka” isn’t just an ode to the greatest hits, though, it actually speaks to a way forward that brings the past with them. It’s still more electronic/synthy than previous Decemberists work but maintains that unapologetic bookishness that defines a big chunk of their best work. In general, I like hearing the non-Meloy members of the band flex their versatility on I’ll Be Your Girl. Meloy is the weakest link for most of the album. He must have heard that electronic songs tend to loop melodies and passages and decided “yeah, I can do that with lyrics.” Not a good move.
Tim: It doesn’t start well. “Once in My Life” is just a louder version of “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” and it’s also two and a half times longer and it definitely doesn’t need to be, because there’s definitely not two and a half times the content. It left a bad taste in my mouth that it took me a few songs to shake…and then we end up with “We All Die Young,” which uses the chorus of surprising children to sing surprisingly dark lyrics a la “Hang the DJ, etc.” in “Panic.”
Matt: You are running with The Smiths comparison.
Tim: I think the album is sort of this cut-rate Smiths cosplay in a lot of ways. Even the lyrics are sort of whiny and unhappy but without any of the winks or smirks that Morrissey inflected with that voice of his. A lot of I’ll Be Your Girl felt like the self-indulgent “I’m so sad” stuff that would have appealed to me a lot more when I was in seventh or eighth grade.
Matt: It’s tough to say this is Smith’s inspired when so much popular music right now is going in this direction.
Tim: I will say I know very little about popular music anymore, and I will also throw out there that there’s a Decemberists album named The King Is Dead which just happens to have a very famous corollary that is also a gajillion times better.
Matt: A phrase that’s also from, like, 15th century France. I like the comparison points, but I am rejecting the cosplay part.
Tim: Meloy’s doing some dress-up. I won’t say the whole band is, that’s an overreach. Also I’m willing to bet The King Is Dead is called that because The Queen Is Dead exists.
Matt: I’m not, but not my (fake) money. The Decemberists go into way too much deep, obscure history for me to bet on that. I don’t think you’re wrong in comparing it to Smiths stuff, but I won’t go so far as to say it’s a conscious effort to be the Smiths (a lesser version, that is). Morrissey crafts narrators to speak the “I’m so sad” stuff; the interesting narration is largely what is missing from I’ll Be Your Girl, like Meloy decided he’s just going to be his whiny self all of a sudden. You’re right, there is no wink or extra layer or even subtext really that points to it being anything other than angst.
Tim: Maybe I’m overreacting to the album a little. I tend to be really ornery about stuff that I feel is badly aping other people’s work. (This explains my La La Land takes in as succinct a way as I can.) I don’t mind derivation, but you have to know why you want to derive off it in the first place.
Matt: My general take is that The Decemberists badly ape themselves when the music isn’t interesting.
Tim: This is a good take and I think more people should be on this bandwagon. That’s as big a problem as anything with both the albums we’ve talked about so far.
Matt: I agree. Eagle-eyed readers might be noticing you have something between these two albums, though.
Tim: I have The King Is Dead eighth.
Matt: Which I have seventh. So same bottom three, just a different order.
Tim: I like this album more now than I did in 2011. But as we’ve said before, it’s more or less generic early ‘10s folksy stuff. I was shocked at how little personality there was in the album, and I still am.
Matt: Certainly hard to maintain the particular personality they had early in their career. I think you’re right still, it’s a well produced but uninspiring record. They sound good in a technical sense, but the whole things sounds pretty empty. I like “January Hymn” and “June Hymn,” and “Down by the Water” still has a certain pep for me, but the rest is ‘meh’
Tim: “Down by the Water” is not such a bad song…just not really special. It’s the kind of thing you play on your iTunes or Spotify or whatever for a couple months and then put down again. The one that really gets me is “This Is Why We Fight,” which I think has a lyrics problem that definitely dogs this group frequently from this point on. Actually reading the lyrics to that song it’s shocking how little content there is. And I can’t help but think it plays into some of the worst Decemberists inclinations to make soft center-left songs like “Don’t Carry It All” or “12/7/12” or “This Is Why We Fight.” It’s got to be their least interesting type of song.
Matt: The liner notes of I’ll Be Your Girl thank Robert Mueller.
Tim: They don’t really.
Matt: Dead serious. Maybe not thank, but at least mention. Pretty sure he’s in the “special thanks” section though.
Tim: The funny thing is that I think “Valerie Plame” is hilarious and marvelously catchy.
Matt: Researched that a bit. The vinyl liner notes list him, and contain “Impeach the President” and “Bring on the Matriarchy”
I’d take a 10 minute epic called “Valerie Plame”
Tim: As I recall it’s only about five.
Matt: Yeah. I want more.
Tim: Is there a lot more we need to say about The King Is Dead?
Matt: We aren’t fans…? I started loving The Decemberists for attributes far from their Americana leanings, I’ll put it that way.
Tim: I think it’s definitely kind of weird that they even felt a need to go that way. I just wouldn’t have guessed it from the albums they had put out before, which are full of these hyperspecific songs with certainly a European focus but also a global view on the whole.
Matt: I have a theory on what should have tipped us off, but I’ll wait until that album comes up. What’s sixth for you, unless we should stay here a bit longer.
Tim: Nah, the folks at home get it. I have The Tain sixth.
Matt: I didn’t expect that. I have Her Majesty.
Tim: Another interesting divergence. I guess The Tain suffers for me because I’m not sure the first section is all that much to write home about, and it’s a larger percentage of the…song…than any one song on an album is, usually. As an atmospheric kind of experiment it might honestly be unequalled among the rest of their work. And if I were to introduce The Decemberists that I know and love to someone, I would probably start them off with The Tain as a way to judge if they are going to love the kind of stuff I love about the group.
Matt: The Tain is a deep dive into Celtic mythology, has a beautiful waltz in the middle, and is a bit jarring, even a little absurd in places. Conlee’s organ and accordion come in at really weird places sometimes. It’s thoroughly Decemberists, and might require the largest buy-in from a listener.
Tim: Jenny Conlee is my vote for “secretly the most important person in the group.”
Matt: Not a doubt in my mind that she’s the most important. Haven’t even mentioned her vocals yet, which are irreplaceable.
Tim: They’re unique. Like, literally unique and not just “special” the way most people use that word.
Matt: I have Her Majesty lower because I think it has nascent versions of what they would become next, not all of which are particularly great. The first half of the record is real hit and miss for me. The back half is stronger, but also contains some of their simpler affair like “Red Right Ankle” and “Song for Myla Goldberg” (a song with some fun, nimble wordplay). It’s a good album, just not the type of Decemberists material that I think is best. “I Was Meant for the Stage” gets there, and “Shanty for Arethusa” gets closeish.
Tim: I think the first half of the album is fabulous and the second half feels more hit and miss to me. This is unusual for us.
Matt: Huh. That’s interesting. What does the first half have that I’m missing? I will say, quickly, that “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is a much better version of indignant Meloy than anything on I’ll Be Your Girl.
Tim: I think the first half of the album is full of this wonderful imagery. “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” has some really striking images and smells, in particular, in its chorus. “The Bachelor and the Bride” is a song that one feels as much as anything else, although I think there’s something painterly about the way it describes its setting. “Shanty for the Arethusa” is very much a song to visualized.
Matt: I don’t disagree, but that’s my point in a way. In terms of imagery, some striking scenes and songs. Musically Her Majesty isn’t that captivating to me though. The writing is rock solid, I think you’re right there.
Tim: It’s a little repetitive. Especially in the songs I just mentioned…there’s not a lot they’re playing with in terms of different ideas.
Matt: There is a definite chasm between seventh and sixth for me. Which is to say I still like Her Majesty and will listen to it somewhat regularly, which I won’t do with the bottom three. Sort of to your point, I think, Her Majesty has some really good singles, but as a full album doesn’t work as well as others do.
Tim: I think there’s probably less connective tissue, sure. For me I think all of the songs are good and some of them are very good, and that launches it up for me a little. Did I say where I put it? I have it fourth. Where’s The Tain for you?
Matt: The Tain is fifth for me, so we have another of these fun gaps. I have a feeling I know what fills it and I’m so ready to tell you you’re wrong.
Tim: …this is exciting.
Matt: Should we say more on Her Majesty or The Tain before we bare our teeth?
Tim: I was probably good on both. I feel like we’ve kind of given The Tain short shrift, but then again it isn’t twenty minutes, so I guess there’s less to really shrift about.
Matt: I like The Tain because I like when the band uncorks their hard-rock side and I love concept albums. For me The Tain is super fun but not the most essential release and lacking some of the high points that other albums have.
Tim: “Not essential” is a good way to put it.
Matt: So what’s in that fifth spot for you?
Tim: It’s Castaways and Cutouts.
Matt: You’re so wrong I just died and came back to life to haunt you.
(That’s not actually the one I was expecting when I made that quip. I’m on my heels here.)
Tim: I’ve got Castaways and Cutouts here because dreary Decemberists is good for a few songs per album, but as an album I’m not sure going full Bright Eyes is really the way forward. I’ve also cooled a lot on songs like “Odalisque” and “A Cautionary Song” since I first got into the album.
Matt: “Odalisque” is their second best song.
Matt: I don’t care who @s me.
Tim: Wait, you mean like, overall?
Matt: I do. Every version of The Decemberists is in “Odalisque,” which also happens to be the mix of Neutral Milk Hotel and a Victorian novel I didn’t know I needed until I had it.
Tim: You talk about that for a minute while I reel.
Matt: I want to hear why you’ve cooled on it.
Tim: It’s a little musically jarring. I don’t know that I love the guitar intro to the chorus like I did before. I also like the lyrics but I’m not floored by them. It’s good, but I would probably put it…I dunno, let’s say fifth on the album. (Marks off “Grace Cathedral Hill,” “Clemetine,” “California One,” “July, July!” and “Cocoon.”) Yeah, we’ll say fifth.
Matt: I’m not here to say it’s the best song in terms of lyrics. But the music makes the lyrics a journey in a way that the very best Decemberists songs do for me. There’s a certain drama and action to the musical progressions and sections that makes the song more moving.
Tim: I like the energy it gives to the album, but I dunno that it hits those heights for me.
Matt: In general, and as I said with The Tain, I like when this band indulges their latent hard-rock sensibilities. “Odalisque” isn’t, like, metal or anything, but there’s an edge that I appreciate and am drawn into. And it works particularly well for that song’s lyrical content. “Odalisque” is also an interesting mini version of future stuff like “The Island” or “I Was Meant for the Stage” or the Crane Wife suite in terms of structure.
Tim: Mm. I think the first and third have scope that “Odalisque” and “I Was Meant for the Stage” can’t touch. (Scope is maybe my favorite Decemberists thing.)
Matt: You’re talking story scope, no? I’m saying purely in terms of structuring a song in that manner, which becomes a thing for the Decemberists after “Odalisque.”
Tim: Kind of? But also in terms of how far the eye can see, too. “The Island” lets you see a lot, which is why I find it incredibly absorbing. I don’t know that I necessarily see a forbear of their more vast stuff on The Crane Wife until Picaresque. I take that back. The Tain does it.
Matt: I honestly believe I can follow threads back to Castaways for everything, which is part of why I love the album. It’s not the same length, but there’s a lot of “Odalisque” in those later suites.
Tim: Where do you have it?
Tim: I think we say a lot about what kind of Decemberists we like with the albums we have second.
Matt: Before that, I would add all of the songs you mentioned on Castaways plus “Leslie Anne Levine” to my reasons why I’m so high on it. Dreary is a good word, but that’s not Bright Eyes.
Tim: I think “Leslie Anne Levine” is a basically perfect introduction to what the band is going to become. Bright Eyes in the sense that I think a lot of their quieter stuff (“Cocoon,” “Clementine”) are pared down musically in the same way that like, “Lua” is.
Matt: I’m having a Smiths flashback here. Bunch of bands who do that. So you’re not wrong, but, like, so?
Tim: I just picked one group, really. I think that a tonal restriction like that really limits how high your ceiling can be for the album. I don’t need to be fed the same thing eight times out of ten songs.
Matt: Oh heavens no. Eight?
Tim: Everything but “Odalisque” and “July, July!” is quiet, plodding, and slow. If you want to take “A Cautionary Song” off that list I’m okay with that, but that’s seven songs which are thematically, lyrically, and tonally similar. And like I said, I think at least four of those songs are the best ones on the album. But Castaways is mostly highlighting a skill set as opposed to giving us some variation. Nor do I think those similar songs build on each other in any serious way, like we see on The Hazards of Love.
Matt: I would also take “The Legionnaire’s Lament” off that list and “California One” if we’re talking tonally and lyrically.
Tim: Forgot “Legionnaire’s Lament,” but for my money that’s the worst song on the album and presages stuff like “The Soldiering Life,” which is arguably the weakest song on its album.
Matt: Seems to me the core of our disagreement is over how diverse Castaways is.
Tim: Something like that. It’s a very good album, but I definitely feel like I’m being shown more on other albums, and if the point of this one is to hammer home an idea about how intimate they can be or how much mood they can project, then I definitely get that at the expense of anything else.
Matt: I feel like everything after goes back to Castaways, so even if I’m seeing more of something on a later album I’m pretty stubborn on saying Castaways has variation. Other albums explore ideas or styles further but, in spite of its general dreariness, Castaways has a lot of nuance, small elements that would get more shine or bigger play later on.
Tim: I just don’t see how that makes it a better album, I guess.
Matt: Part of this, I’m sure, is that I like the tone over a full album. Castaways isn’t the most overtly thrilling or even interesting Decemberists’ album, but that nuance and intimacy sticks out to me. I’ve never heard anyone say Castaways is their best or favorite, which I bring up not to be contrarian but to say that I get it’s not a heavy hitter really and I think it’s deeply underrated.
Tim: Speaking as one of the people underrating it, I think that’s true.
Matt: I guess give me a good acoustic, organ dirge over the filler on, say, Crane Wife anyday.
Tim: There’s a lot of filler on The Crane Wife. The reason I have that first is because I think it peaks there.
Matt: You have that first?!
Tim: I decided to get weird.
Matt: I thought I was weird. This list is suddenly hilarious. Not because of you, because of both of us.
Tim: Well, half me. I think it starts with “The Island” being the best song they have, which I think we agree on, and that means a lot for me.
Matt: We do agree. Much as I stan for “Odalisque,” “The Island” is decidedly their best.
Tim: It’s got so much ambition. Remember that bracket we never did for best songs seven minutes or longer?
Matt: Yeah! We should finish that…
Tim: I gotta dig that up eventually…it’s buried in my Drive somewhere.
“The Island” is two-thirds the length of The Tain, and it’s at least as crazy as The Tain. It rhymes “Sycorax” with “parallax.” It has these three extraordinarily different acts within it. The music is occasionally hypnotic. Meloy sounds as good in this song (and extends his vocal range as far as I think he ever has) as he does anywhere else. I’m sure you have more historical reasons why it works, but I simply don’t have criticisms of it. For me it’s one of the last times where we hear Meloy’s gift for off kilter, smart lyrics.
Matt: If I’m to be the historical one here, I’ll just say it’s based on The Tempest, which is one of Shakespeare’s best. I’m fully on the bandwagon for all you just said. My “issue” is the rest of Crane Wife. Which I have fourth, incidentally.
Matt: “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” is very good. “Crane Wife 3” wouldn’t go away for a minute but is also a good tune. “Yankee Bayonet” I really like but that one rarely gets much attention (probably because it follows “The Island”). Where am I going after that?
Tim: Props to “Yankee Bayonet” for being a legitimate duet, by the way. The theatrical music lover person thingy in me is very in favor. We can talk about how “The Perfect Crime” and “When the War Came” and “Summersong” are boring as all get-out.
Matt: “Perfect Crime” drives me insane. “Summersong” got old. If I’m in the right mood I dig “When the War Came,” but it also makes me wish they would experiment with that post-rock noise at the end. Yeah, not high praise for those three.
Tim: “When the War Came” is the best of the three, for sure.
Matt: This feels like it comes down to me accepting “O Valencia” and “Shankill Butchers,” and I don’t know that I’m ready for that.
Tim: I think “O Valencia” is fun and catchy and campy in ways that I just kind of enjoy. “Shankill Butchers” is fine. I think about it as an eerie setup for “Culling of the Fold” later on and that helps me out a little.
Matt: I have fun with “O Valencia,” that’s not enough for me to get Crane Wife over the hump though. “Sons and Daughters,” the only song we haven’t mentioned, has a certain bounce but I also blamed it for the worst parts of I’ll Be Your Girl earlier so not sure I’m in on that one.
Tim: …so, I may have done something I’m not supposed to do.
Matt: I dig the audacity. And I’m being serious.
Tim: No, it’s technical. I have “Culling of the Fold” and “After the Bombs” on my tracklist for The Crane Wife, and both of those do work in nudging it up for me. Do they count or are they purely bonus stuff?
Matt: Well, I was gearing up to say “After the Bombs” is a bonus track, so I don’t know that they can technically. I’m more struggling with them being bonus content from two different editions. So, if they do you have Crane Wife first?
Tim: Nope. Without those there’s not enough to balance out that triad of meh/bad we mentioned earlier.
Matt: Where does it land in that case?
Tim: Probably third.
Matt: We’ll have two lists at the end. I’m not sure it moves for me.
Tim: I think turning “Sons and Daughters” into “Culling of the Fold” and “After the Bombs” is a way stronger statement than just ending there.
Matt: Yarp. “Sons and Daughters” is a weird ending song.
Tim: As the third-to-last song, it’s this cheery kind of optimism which gets obliterated by the chaos and harshness of “Culling” and then obliterated again by the sadness and pensiveness of “After the Bombs.” As a last song it’s a little cute. Also I appreciate why I got the reaction I got for putting this first now that I know we were on different pages.
Matt: I’m glad you had those two songs in mind in that ranking. It wouldn’t move for me, but those two are good enough that I can not “?!” the statement.
Tim: So what’s third for you? Now that we know my third, lol.
Matt: Didn’t we do my third…?
Tim: Did we?
Tim: Did you move that to third when I wasn’t looking?
Matt: Did I say second? Shit, hang on.
Tim: [Jeopardy theme]
Matt: Now that I’ve fixed that error no one will know is a thing until now. I did very recently update my ranking which was the same for several years, so old habits die hard.
Tim: So Castaways really is third.
Matt: Yes. It used to be second. I stand by all I said, but that is third for me. I’m honestly considering the order of first and second again as we speak, though.
Tim: For those of us not keeping track at home, Matt and I, after a series of interesting plot twists, have Picaresque and The Hazards of Love remaining.
Tim: While he fiddles around a little, Picaresque to me is the one with all the hits, the one that just sort of puts the band at its most characteristic into a bundle and then whacks you with said bundle while you grin and make chef fingers. And The Hazards of Love is The Decemberists at their most adventurous and wild and conceptual, with fewer individual winners but incredible cohesion. My musical theater leanings say that the former is Oklahoma! and the latter is choose your Sondheim. Does that seem fair?
Matt: Until you got to Oklahoma!
Tim: Oklahoma! Is great.
Matt: It is fair, that was a gut reaction I couldn’t stave. My prog-rock leanings say that Hazards is Close to the Edge and Picaresque is Fragile.
Tim: You can take the actual podcast out of us, etc.
Matt: Right? I need to start this with, when I’m being as honest as possible, Picaresque is the best Decemberists’ album. The floor is just so high on that sucker that even the relatively weaker songs generally have something fun or unique happening. It’s the peak of Meloy’s ability to embody off-kilter and surly narrators and make compelling stories. It has “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which is more than simply the height of their fondness for sea chanties (I go for the archaic spelling, yes)
BUT, Hazards of Love is just so damn fun. And that means something. I feel fully immersed in Hazards but I can drift in and out of Picaresque sometimes.
Tim: A lot of that is construction, because Hazards is that incredibly rare album that really does want you to wear it like an old hoodie. Picaresque usually loses me somewhere during “From My Own True Love.” And that’s definitely points for Hazards. I have a tiny issue with Hazards from the “best Decemberists” album point of view which has some ship of Theseus in it…is it really just them?
Matt: What do you mean? Oh, the guest spots you mean?
Tim: I realize that’s not the end of the world or anything. Shara Nova has an unbelievable voice, and I love how she (and the other folks) make the album remarkable. As much as we love Jenny Conlee, she couldn’t have done that. What I guess worries me a little is that it’s so different that it’s difficult to judge it on the same kind of merits as the usual group. “Under Pressure” comes to mind here…it’s not just Queen or Bowie, and how do you put that into context with the rest of those bands’ work?
Matt: I have less problem with that because no one is going to call Hazards a My Brightest Diamond album.
Tim: Of course not…I guess a lot of my argument for Picaresque as the best of the Decemberists albums is that it is the band at its most Decemberists. And I have a hard time making that argument for Hazards when it is a different group than we have for virtually the rest of the time. It doesn’t make the album better or worse, but it makes it tougher for me to contextualize in this specific discussion.
Matt: This happens all the time in hip-hop. And even in rock. Other artists do guest verses or play an instrument or something. Josh Homme always brings other people in to play on Queens of the Stone Age stuff. I know this isn’t quite the same with Nova playing a recurring role. There’s an analogy to be made with Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown which is folk concept album about the Orpheus and Eurydice myth with a handful of guest artists but which is still thoroughly of Mitchell’s work. I see your point, I just don’t feel I need to make the same hurdle.
Tim: Fair enough.
Matt: I’m still not sure which one I’m actually putting first, because drama or something. I will say that from “The Wanting Comes in Waves” to the end, Hazards is freaking amazing.
Tim: I am slightly indifferent about some of the music without lyrics, but it’s pretty strong. I think “Annan Water” in particular stands out not just on the album but as one of the better songs they have in their catalogue, period.
Matt: It’s so good. I’m particularly fond of the riff that announces the Queen’s (Nova) presence. Not that this isn’t a thing elsewhere, but that each character has a melody or sonic cue is unusual for even rock operas. If we’re talking variety in terms of music, I think Hazards has the most. Not that I’m confusing songs on Picaresque or anything, but the building blocks on that aren’t quite as diverse. That said, Picaresque makes some stellar things happen.
Tim: I appreciate that Hazards does as much work as any Decemberists album on a song-to-song basis of varying itself, I think. “The Wanting Comes in Waves” is a great example. Maybe the best song on the album?
Matt: I think it is. It’s a top-5 for me in their catalogue. But that’s me…
Tim: I don’t think I’d argue with that as a gut response. I have to say that I’m not thrilled about putting Picaresque as my top choice, but I wonder if I’ve just worn the album a little thin. I think about “We Both Go Down Together,” “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” and “The Engine Driver” and I don’t know if I’m tired of the songs because I listened to them endlessly when I was in high school or if there’s just not much there. I’m sort of inclined to suggest the latter.
Matt: Picaresque has long been my answer for their best. I’ve always enjoyed Hazards more. (Not always, because release dates, but you know what I mean). I’m finally giving in to whatever Hazards has that makes it so endlessly listenable and immersive. I’m putting Hazards at the top.
Tim: That means, based on the tally I’ve put together:
9 – I’ll Be Your Girl
8 – What a Terrible World
7 – The King Is Dead
6 – The Tain
5 – Her Majesty
4 – Castaways and Cutouts
3 – The Crane Wife
T-1 – Picaresque and The Hazards of Love
If we include “Culling of the Fold” and “After the Bombs,” nothing changes, incidentally.
Matt: That’s fun. So we can say we have a definitive list.
Tim: Pretty much. And I think our lists have enough variance between them to show how we look at The Decemberists and essentially how we want them to be.
Matt: Certainly some steadfast disagreements in there. Not in a bad way, just that we have clear opinions which I think help this list. I want the Decemberists to keep trying new things for their sake, but fans always gravitate toward what hooked them in the first place. Which does not make “the newer stuff isn’t as good” untrue. It’s maybe more accessible, but not as good.
Tim: I think what I really want them to start doing again is twofold. First, I want them to get back to songs with distinctive narrators and really strong storytelling which distinguishes them from the average alt-rock band. Second, I like The Decemberists most they’re daring. Give me more songs named after ‘60s kitchen sink British movies. Write more ten minute songs in different parts with different characters. Play more bouzouki. Stop trying to be Neil Young.
Matt: This is a band who picked their name based on either an unfinished Tolstoy novel or the, like, third biggest revolution in Russian history. They are not meant for Neil Young. I want sea chanties, and excessive accordion, and songs about ruffians from Victorian England to 20th century Vietnam to the ancient Middle East. I love The Decemberists at their most different, when they stand apart as doing something they genuinely love and that really only they can provide.
Tim: Keep The Decemberists weird.