Outside the Hammerstein Ballroom on a perfectly crisp November night, a towering black man dressed Wu-Tang circa 1995 is bellowing, “DECEMBERISTS TICKETS. DECEMBERISTS IS SOLD OUT.” I have stared at him in a thousand different states of disbelief for so long he takes note and asks, “Hey big guy, you need tickets?” Must be the wool sweater.
Inside, dozens of trend-spotting writers, bloggers, and shills are buzzing about the best CMJ performances of 2006, particularly the Knife, a Depeche Mode throwback whose sadly asexual black-lit glow-stick pantomime at Webster Hall was so impenetrable it just had to be art. Tonight demarcates the other side of the hipster spectrum: the familiar world of self-pitying white people looking for reasons to be unhappy, or at least suspicious, despite incalculable birthright advantages. The Decemberists look down from the top of this mountain, trying to make a living off of blasé malaise.
“We’re going to try to pretend we’re at the Mercury Lounge,” pleads leader Colin Meloy after a few rote numbers from the band’s back catalog. It’s a strategic ploy, setting up the midsized Ballroom as a straw man for the Big Time (the band’s latest, The Crane Wife, is their first for major label Capitol), when in reality there are probably less than 2,000 people here. Regardless, Meloy’s foot-shuffling apology assumes that large portions of the crowd believe they are in on a secret, that the Decemberists are an untainted troupe of backwoods poets we should expect to be seeing in a much smaller, more intimate setting. This is what Meloy needs to believe.
At the Ballroom, the Decemberists walked onstage to a behind-the-curtain introduction by someone with a faux-British accent almost as bad as Meloy’s, asking the audience to “imagine you are standing atop a vast canyon wall, staring miles down as six figures walk into view, the wind whipping at their clothes.” So much of this band’s image is based on winking deprecation of this sort, painting them as inauspicious, honest artists forced into the commercial arena, but the truth is the Decemberists take their career in rock very seriously. The time between each number’s final strum and Meloy’s roadie handing him a different guitar for the next was subatomic. The world has not known a concert this economic and slick since Genesis in the mid 1980s, and I had a hard time believing these six windswept figures longed for the Mercury Lounge at all.
Who could be embarrassed to play the Hammerstein Ballroom, and of all people, Colin Meloy? This guy couldn’t wait for success to validate his ego, powering half a decade of dilettante dalliances spanning Civil War period costume, Japanese folk tales, Irish solidarity poses, and his recent declaration that the Decemberists are “a wartime band.” Right, Colin, America’s iPods are burning. But more confounding than any contradictory professionalism is Meloy’s core conceit: He believes he is a gifted and entitled writer, fit to tackle and retranslate whatever mythologies interest him. On The Crane Wife—largely inspired by a Japanese misogyny fable—Meloy stages an incongruous Tinkertoy lullaby about the Shankill Butchers, a handful of murderous Ulster sociopaths from the darkest days of the Troubles. This is not the first time Meloy has ventured to stand in for the Irish despite his Montana roots. In addition to indulging his Anglophile streak (solo acoustic Morrissey and Shirley Collins cover EPs), the Decemberists released The Tain (2003), inspired by the Ulster cycle, the centerpiece of pre-Christian Celtic mythology. Just as Meloy flubbed “pleased tea” for “greased tea” from the Mozzer’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” he mouthed off about the impact the “tay-n” cycle had on him. It’s pronounced “torn.”
In the past, the Decemberists’ 17th-century laments were merely soaked in solecism—coy cunning from a clever aesthete with a woodcut fetish who’d seen Rushmore too many times. But Meloy is increasingly emboldened by success, becoming more and more literal. You get the sense he scans encyclopedias for his cautionary chides, casually selecting tales famous as the boogeyman in their native lilt and fashioning them into cuddly Wes Anderson pirouettes, an indefensible, objectifying condescension born of bravado and ignorance. Meloy is so embarrassed to be from Helena—and America generally—that he wraps himself in pasts and cultures he could never understand, in an effort to co-opt their dramatic import. I’m sure somebody in his family is Irish, but it’s the predefined, tidy, and glorified certainty of this history that’s Meloy’s inspiration, not his ostensible, however distant, roots. He’s overreaching—at best, he could gradually improve and evolve into our generation’s Andy Partridge.