You hope and pray that high school ends when you graduate, but you’re wrong. It goes on forever. There are jocks and cheerleaders, outcasts and teachers’ pets, in every corner of the world. So you try to escape. You put on your headphones and close your eyes. But the social structure is in the music, too. Your favorite pop stars sit at lunch tables with other pop stars just like them. Eventually, you give in. You learn to embrace the stereotypes. You find comfort in the fact that you are a target demographic.
This is how I came to love the Decemberists, who play Irving Plaza May 4.
On a bone-rattlingly cold night in January, Colin Meloy, the singer-guitarist for the Portland, Oregon-based orchestral pop band, performed a solo acoustic show at Fez, the swanky East Village cabaret that closed its doors last month. Meloy is a handsome fellow with blue eyes, brown hair, and a round face who hides behind horn-rimmed glasses and, on this particular night, a gray hoodie and jeans. He sings, in a nasal tenor that often recalls a carnival barker, about olden times and faraway places, using a vast vocabulary and epic plotlines. In other words, Colin Meloy is the type of guy that a girl like me—gawky, unathletic, fearful of prom queens—is supposed to find dreamy, and I do. So did all the other casually dressed, slightly dowdy indie rock girls in the audience at Fez. We swooned and sighed as Meloy played a lengthy set of Decemberists favorites and Morrissey covers, interspersed with jocular banter and references to his girlfriend (grrr!)—the illustrator Carson Ellis, who is responsible for the band’s whimsical album artwork. Meloy ended the set with a hushed cover of Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls,” which he introduced as “an old folk song.” Then we all went home and blogged about it.
We dowdy indie rock girls have a number of dashing young suitors competing for our hearts these days. There’s Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service, even Seth Cohen, the nebbishy character played by Adam Brody on the Fox teensploitation dramedy The O.C. These pale boys woo us with their wounded sensitivity and self-deprecating humor, yet we suspect, even as we faint in their arms, that they are only after one thing.
Colin Meloy may be on an eternal booty quest, too, but he hides it better than most. He holds a degree in creative writing (with a theater minor) from the University of Montana, and his songs are fairy tales which he narrates or takes part in, rather than first-person confessionals. “I’ve been writing music since I was a teenager, and it just stopped being very interesting to me to write about my own depressing love life,” he tells me, as the Decemberists’ touring van rolls toward Iowa City. “Aspects of that can be romantic and poetic, but I wanted to start exploring different forms of narrative.”
The Decemberists’ fantastic new album, appropriately titled Picaresque, begins with the lines, “Here she comes in her palanquin/On the back of an elephant,” and sails away from there. Meloy inhabits the bodies of a teenage prostitute (“On the Bus Mall”), a government worker in love with a spy (“The Bagman’s Gambit”), a bloodthirsty sailor (“The Mariner’s Revenge Song”), and a disgraced athlete (“The Sporting Life”), all with a wink in his eye and a sob in his throat. His lyrics are buoyed by grand, showboating melodies and galloping rhythms played by Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, drummer Rachel Blumberg (who has since left the band and been replaced by John Moen), and a rogue’s gallery of guests, including producer Chris Walla, who is also a member of Death Cab for Cutie. It was recorded in a former Baptist church in Portland, Meloy explains, because “we wanted a big, open, airy sound and we wanted to get away from the clinical feel of being in a studio.”
Picaresque‘s album artwork features the band members in costume, staging scenes from the songs. The images should strike a chord with anybody who ever helped paint a Swiss mountain pass on a tarp or fashion a forest out of cardboard. “When I was a freshman in high school, I got involved in local community theater,” Meloy says. “It really opened things up for me, being an awkward teen discovering who I was. I was having a very quick falling-out with athletics and finding that I wasn’t really fitting in that environment. I think theater popped up just at the right time. It made me comfortable being onstage, performing.”
For those of us with the drama club lurking in our pasts, the Decemberists offer catharsis, so we’ve come out of the woodwork in droves. “When we first started playing, I assumed that we would eventually hit a wall,” Meloy says. “That people wouldn’t be able to swallow seeing a bunch of people performing, recording, getting photos taken of themselves, not trying to posture in this rock and roll masculine way. So I always assumed we would never really get that far because we just don’t exhibit that.” But after four years as a band, with three records and two EPs under their belts, the Decemberists are one of the biggest indie rock acts around. They consistently sell out midsize venues across the country, and Meloy, Funk, Query, and Conlee have all quit their day jobs to be full-time musicians. “It’s been a real eye-opening experience, not only having the public and fans greet us with open arms,” Meloy continues, “but also the mainstream press get over their hang-ups about filling their magazines with photographs of fashion victims strutting their masculinity to put in a few pictures of us dressed in weird clothing and Chris Funk in a fake beard. It’s really kind of exciting.”
Last year, the Continuum publishing group put out a book by Meloy about the Replacements’ Let It Be as part of their 33 1/3 series of texts exploring classic rock albums. In it, Meloy wrote less about the Replacements than his childhood in Helena, Montana. He describes how punk rock helped him realize that his place was with the freaks and geeks, not the popular kids. It’s a worldview that he’s carried with him. “What I see in the Bush administration is that kind of jock mentality that first pushed me away from sports,” he says. “I have real big issues with that stuff.” Those issues are dealt with in Picaresque‘s “Sixteen Military Wives” and its attendant music video, in which Meloy portrays the bullying representative of the United States in a high school model United Nations club. “America does if America says it’s so!” he bellows.
I ask Meloy how he feels about being a heartthrob. “I feel great about it! I would certainly rather be that to a bunch of English majors and drama fags than a bunch of sorority girls.” He laughs. “It’s one of our main m.o.’s to try to make the world safe for pansies.”