Despite prairie roots, Montana native Colin Meloy is Andy Partridge with a knack for nautical hooks. Penning chirpy, lightweight chanteys for the pallid set, he externalizes the imagery of waterlogged groups like Unwed Sailor and June of 44, displacing indie naval-gazing with yarns about the high seas. And by integrating seedy details into his sailor boy, Meloy has just about managed to shift the Decemberists from ultra-coy college rock to something less vanilla.
A likely link for his ragtag Victorian tropes is the Jeff Mangum of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel’s loose-hinged 1998 paean to Anne Frank. Meloy can hit that Mangum howl, and like the Elephant 6 poster boy he buttresses a makeshift world on his narrative arc. But where NMH tweaked a rusted Harry Partch patchwork in response to World War II atrocity, the Decemberists are more workmanlike in their salt and brine. Bubbling gleefully beneath is Meloy’s oddball focus, like his beloved Balthus, on girls’ bottoms and white cotton underwear.
The band’s inaugural 5 Songs EP was clever, ultimately lifeless indie folk. The seafaring shtick was better integrated throughout the band’s first full-length, Castaways and Cutouts, on which Meloy nasally evoked a number of wimpy Anglophiles, but his cast of well-drawn 19th-century characters set him apart from the bespeckled post-Twee Fest crew. At its melancholy best, the album explored degradation with sunny pop hooks. Its squeezebox-spunky parable about a mother fucking sailors to feed her family worked as a sawdust-kicking hootenany.
On Her Majesty the Decemberists, the Portland-based scallywags sail toward a more turbulent horizon. “Shanty for the Arethusa” begins the album with meandering horns, cymbal washes, accordion, and creaking dock. One of the less structured pieces in Meloy’s oeuvre, it sets fragmented mooring for the following dozen tracks. The band’s newfound willingness to experiment leads to overkill: At seven-plus minutes, “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” plods interminably; the preening monologue “I Was Meant for the Stage” could’ve been forgotten altogether. Meloy’s work is best enjoyed in brief, catchy currents: “Billy Liar” features adolescent pocket pool and a Japanese geisha; “The Soldiering Life” is a homoerotic tableau of foxhole cuddling in WW I Belgium, climaxing with a smooth jazz exclamation to the man-on-man action. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is scented with burned cocaine, vomit, cheap whores, and a quavering string section.
In Querelle, Jean Genet suggests, “Murder often brings to mind the notion of sea and sailors,” and as is often the case with Genet, sailors in turn bring to mind semen and oceans of booty. Basically, the Decemberists are contributing a safe dose of transgression to this bawdy tradition.
The Decemberists play Luxx October 25.