Picaresque

by The Decemberists

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about

The Decemberists know that the psychology of a culture at war is complex; that historical archetypes can inform the masses on current events far better than the evening news; and, perhaps most importantly, that life is ultimately a spectacular and colorful pageant. They remind us that, on any given day, we might rub shoulders with rogue spies and runaway prostitutes, child monarchs and vengeful mariners, boy ghosts, couples contemplating suicide, cannibals and drowning angels. This existence is indeed a spectacle to be revered.

In August of 2004, Rachel Blumberg, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, Colin Meloy, and Nate Query set up shop at a former Baptist church in Portland, Oregon. With co-producer Chris Walla at the controls, the five musicians collectively known as The Decemberists emerged three weeks later with the bulk of the work completed for Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars - March 22, 2005), their most ambitious and realized effort to date.

“On the surface it could be seen as somewhat ambitious,” relates singer, guitarist and lyricist Colin Meloy, “I mean, in rock mythology you have Led Zeppelin recording in castles and other such tales… but there is a really nice simplicity to just setting up in the chapel of a church. It’s just one wide-open space. It feels less clinical and time-constrained than a formal studio.”

Harnessing the airy spaciousness of the temporary Baptist church studio, Picaresque has an aural similarity to Castaways and Cutouts, their widely heralded debut album. Hush Records originally released Castaways and Cutouts in 2002 and Kill Rock Stars re-issued it in 2003, the same year they released Her Majesty the Decemberists, the band’s second full-length CD. The Decemberists have two adventurous EPs to their credit as well: 5 Songs (Hush, 2003), which actually contains six songs; and The Tain (2004, on the Spanish label Acuarela Discos), an 18-minute EP based on an eighth century Celtic poem.

The Decemberists really hit their stride while working on The Tain, their first project with Chris Walla. Walla is probably best known as the guitarist & keyboard player in the band Death Cab for Cutie. “By the time we completed Picaresque, it was obvious to us all that the band had been functioning as a very tight intuitive unit for some time.” notes Meloy. “In many ways, this recording process felt effortless, and I think a lot of that started with The Tain. That was a great experience because it allowed us to experiment with arrangements in a low pressure setting. I think it opened our eyes to a new way of working, which we applied to the performances on this new record.”

Indeed, Picaresque explodes confidently into form on the first track “The Infanta.” Colin Meloy’s lyric gloriously paints the spectacle of a Portuguese child princess’s coronation. Sonically, Rachel Blumberg relentlessly announces the proceedings with a powerful rolling drum beat that does not cease until the Kings and Concubines and Elephants and Phalanxes and Virgins and Camels and Baronesses have all paid their respects to the child monarch.

These are the types of characters and events that appear throughout a Colin Meloy penned soundscape. “I admire Robyn Hitchcock for having created a world that is very cohesive from song to song but doesn’t necessarily read as too much of a map. Ultimately he sets up his own set of rules, and I would aspire to do the same thing.”

Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk introduces a virtual army of traditional instruments in order to accentuate the Picaresque aural landscape alongside the myriad characters that populate the songs. “Chris Funk brought a lot to this record with regard to instrumentation.” notes Meloy. “Notably the hammer dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy…, which he picked up for these sessions. As well as the saz (a Turkish bazooki-like instrument) and banjo…” Jenny Conlee provides The Decemberists’ definitive Hammond organ and accordion textures and Nate Query handles the bass duties. Additionally, when appropriate, band members contributed parts using every instrument at their disposal. The list of guest musicians includes, to name a few, Petra Haden on violin and vocals and Paul Brainard, Joe Cunningham and Tom Hill on various brass instruments.

There is the pageantry and then there are the lovelorn. Colin Meloy achingly sings out “My Love, My Love” to an infectious melody in “We Both Go Down Together”. It is the story of a rags-and- riches dual suicide. “Eli The Barrow Boy” is the tale of a heartbroken perpetual boy ghost. And the theme of complicated love finds another home in “The Bagman’s Gambit,” where international spies mourn their elusive romance in the shadow of embassies and capitol buildings. The sparse lament “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” approaches Haiku in its succinct elegance. The narrator of “Engine Driver” yearns for release from romantic obsession first from the perspective of an engine driver, then as a county lineman, a fiction writer and finally a money lender.

“A lot of the characters do have hidden or forbidden loves.” says Colin Meloy. “If you go back that is a common theme for me. I typically surround these characters with tragedy. And I tend to think there is no greater tragedy than a lost, forbidden, or unrequited love. I think that is what traditional folk music is based on… it’s based on a litany of loss. “

In “On the Bus Mall,” runaway prostitutes mourn their lost childhoods and guard each other like abandoned siblings. “The Sporting Life” is the deceptively complicated tale, set to an upbeat Motown drum and bass variation, of an injured soccer player in the aristocratic world of sport. And then there is “16 Military Wives”:

“The political environment also influenced the songwriting in creating the need to maybe go farther into my own head,” says Meloy. “The album has our first quasi-political song: “16 Military Wives.” That was written right before the invasion of Iraq and it explores how that event coincided with the Academy Awards. It deals with the war and the cult of celebrity. It’s the closest I have ever come to any sort of pop culture criticism... I think that overtly political songs tend to oversimplify situations. These are more complex issues than many reactionaries are painting them to be. All this sycophantic love for the approach of certain celebrity activists… there’s something quite absurd in that too. If you try to take a step back and remove yourself from the furor there is an absurdity in every corner of it, really. I mean, it wasn’t my intent to write a song that paints a single perspective.”

Meloy lights up at the mention of the epic “The Mariner’s Revenge,” which comes in at just under nine minutes. “We just set up a single microphone and recorded live around it. This approach gave it that natural room sound...you know that ‘Original Broadway Cast Recording Of’ kind of sound—like it’s on a stage. It took several takes, but we finally got it in the end and (laughs) you can tell that Jenny’s accordion playing was frenzied to a degree toward the end of the take that ended up on Picaresque. It was the very end of the tenth take and we just needed to get it right, and I think there is a very endearing frenzy to the performance. It was a lot of fun doing such an ambitious arrangement live. It was like doing theater: making sure that all of the parts were there and that everyone knew their parts. Then it was just a question of putting it all together. We kind of conducted each other.“

While their appreciation of community theater is evident in the album’s epic tale and playful jewelcase artwork, The Decemberists are not merely armed with wooden swords and felt skirts. Rather they confidently wield stories grounded in archetypes, transcendent musicianship, and a collective enthusiasm for an art form they have mastered. Like The Clash with their passionate streetwise politics 25 years ago, the effect of The Decemberists is one that challenges a culture resisting the prospect of its own mortality—a people that have become mesmerized by censured popular media outlets and political sound bites.

“The word ‘archetype’ has a negative connotation because it implies some sort of escapism or going back to anachronistic times,” says Meloy, “but I think that archetypes are important figures in a society. They are easily overlooked. The characters that populate the collective unconscious are an essential part of society’s fabric. They can speak directly to the current situation. I think you can educate yourself about current events by going back and looking at archetypes.”

In a political and social climate of fear and denial with regard to mortality, The Decemberists’ spirited recordings contribute to the majesty of this existence. Their approach to popular music celebrates the gifts couched in the tenuous nature of life. It is a glorious process that transcends organized religion and politics. Like the sweet lovers in the album’s final track, “Of Angels and Angles,” drowning together is not necessarily a tragedy. Death itself is inevitable, finding and being with one’s true love is not.

“That’s something I wrote a while ago. It’s quite a personal song,” remembers Colin Meloy. “It wasn’t ever really intended to be recorded. It’s one of those songs you write and you just want to keep for yourself. Once I decided to record it however it became an obvious choice with which to conclude Picaresque.“

The intimacy of the final track, “Of Angels and Angles,” sits in extreme contrast to the glorious chaos of “The Infanta” which opens the CD. Indeed, a return listen to “The Infanta” yields a certain amount of foreshadowing: after the pomp, circumstance, and the procession of royalty that is the bulk of “The Infanta,” Meloy reveals the heralded child monarch’s deepest desire in the midst of the decadent celebration:

“And the Babe all in slumber dreams
Of a place Filled with Quiet Streams
And the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water”


“So, hopefully, by the end of the record,” Colin Meloy concludes, “you will have taken some sort of journey that will lead you, in an authentic way, to that very simple moment.”

From spectacle to simplicity—that may not be the American Dream, but The Decemberists would have us believe it is most certainly our legacy and, if we are truly fortunate, our fate.


Jim Roll
Ypsilanti, MI
December 2004

credits

released 22 March 2005

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Track Name: The Infanta
Here she comes in her palanquin
On the back of an elephant
On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk

All astride (on her father's line)
With the King and his Concubine
And her nurse with her pitchers of liquors and milk

And we'll all come praise the Infanta
And we'll all come praise the Infanta

Among five score pachyderm
All canopied and passenger'd
Sit the Duke and the Duchess's luscious young girls

Within site of the Baroness
Seething spite for this lithe largess
By her side sits the Baron - her barren-ness barbs her

Chorus

A phalanx on camel back!
Thirty ranks on a forward tack
Follow close, their shiny bright standards a-waving!

While behind in their coach-and-fours
Ride the wives of the King of Moors
And the veiled young virgin, the Prince's betrothed.

Chorus

And as she sits upon her place
Her innocence laid on her face
From atop the parapets blow a multitude of coronets
Melodies rhapsodical and fair!
And all our hearts afire, the sky ablaze with cannon fire,
We raise our voices to the air
To the air.

And above all this folderol
On a bed made of chaparral
She is laid, a coronal placed on her brow.

And the babe all in slumber dreams
Of a place filled with quiet streams
And the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water.

Chorus
Track Name: We Both Go Down Together
Here on these cliffs of Dover
So high, you can't see over
And while your head is spinning
Hold tight, it's just the beginning.

You come from parents wanton
A childhood rough and rotten
I come from wealth and beauty
Untouched by work or duty

And O! My Love! My Love!
And O! My Love! My Love!
We both go down together!

I found you, a tattoo'd tramp
A dirty daughter from the labor camp
I laid you down in the grass of a clearing
You wept, but your soul was willing

Chorus

Meet me on my vast veranda
My sweet untouched Miranda
And while the seagulls are crying
We fall but our souls are flying!

Chorus
Track Name: Eli, The Barrow Boy
Eli, the barrow boy of the old town
Sells coal and marigolds
And he cries out all down the day

Below the tamaracks he is crying,
"Corncobs and candlewax for the buying!"
All down the day

"Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe
Made of gold and silk Arabian thread
But she is dead and gone and lying in a pine grove
And I must push my barrow all the day.
And I must push my barrow all the day."

Eli, the barrow boy - when they found him
Dressed all in corduroy he had drowned in
The river down the way.

They laid his body down in the church yard
But still when the moon is out
With his push cart he calls down the day:

"Would I could afford to buy my love a fine gown
Made of gold and silk Arabian thread
But I am dead and gone and lying in a church ground
But still I push my barrow all the day
Still I push my barrow all the day"
Track Name: The Sporting Life
I fell on the playing field
The work of an errant heel
The din of the crowd and the loud commotion
Went deafening silent and stopped in motion

The season was almost done
We'd managed it twelve to one
So far I had known no humiliation
In front of my friends and close relations

But there's my father looking on
And there's my girlfriend arm and arm
With the captain of the other team and all of this is clear to me
They condescend to fix on me a frown
How they love the sporting life!

And father had had such hopes
For a son who would take the ropes
And fulfill all his old athletic aspirations
But apparently now there's some complications

But while I am lying here
Trying to fight the tears
I'll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger
(Though I think I might lie here a little longer.)

'Cause there's my coach-- he's looking down
The disappointment in his knitted brow
"I should've known," he thinks again. "I never should've put him in."
He turns to load the lemonade away
And breathes in deep the sporting life.

Rpt. First Chorus
Track Name: The Bagman's Gambit
How could I refuse a favor or two
And for a tryst in the greenery
I gave you documents and microfilm too.

And from my ten-floor tenement
Where once our bodies lay
How I long to hear you say
"No they'll never catch me now
No they'll never catch me
No they cannot catch me now
We will escape somehow."

It was late one night
I was awoken by the telephone
I heard a strangled cry on the end of the line

Purloined in Petrograd
They were suspicious of where your loyalties lay
So I paid off a bureaucrat
To convince your captors there to secret you away

And at the gate of the embassy
Our hands met through the bars
As your whisper stilled my heart:
"No they'll never catch me now
No they'll never catch me
No they cannot catch me now
We will escape somehow."

And I dreamt one night
You were there in form
Hands held high
In uniform.

It was ten years on when you resurfaced in a motorcar
And with a wave of an arm you were there and gone.
Track Name: From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)
Four score years, living down in this rain-swept town
Sea-salt tears swimming round as the rain comes down

Mr. Postman, do you have a letter for me?
Mr. Postman, do you have a letter for me?
A letter for me
From my own true love, lost at sea
Lost at sea.
Track Name: 16 Military Wives
16 military wives, 32 softly focused, brightly colored eyes
Staring at the natural tan of 32 gently clenching wrinkled little hands
17 company men, out of which only 12 will make it back again
Sergeant sends a letter to 5 military wives as tears drip down from 10 little eyes.

Cheer them on to their rivals
Because America can and America can't say no
And America does if America says it's so.
And the anchor person on TV goes "na na na na na na na na na"

15 celebrity minds, leading their 15 sordid, wretched, checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time using their 15 pristine moderate liberal minds?
18 Academy chairs, out of which only 7 really even care
Doling out a garland to 5 celebrity minds, they're humbly taken by surprise.

Chorus

14 cannibal kings, wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring
15 celebrity minds, served on a leafy bed of 16 military wives

Chorus
Track Name: The Engine Driver
I'm an engine driver
On a long run, on a long run
Would I were beside her
She's a long one, such a long one

And if you don't love me let me go
And if you don't love me let me go

I'm a county lineman
On the high line, on the high line
So will be my grandson
There are powerlines in our bloodline.

And if you don't love me let me go
And if you don't love me let me go

And I am writer, a writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones.

I'm a moneylender
I have fortunes upon fortunes
Take my hand for tender
I am tortured, ever tortured

And if you don't love me let me go
And if you don't love me let me go

Chorus
Track Name: On The Bus Mall
In matching blue raincoats our shoes were our showboats
We kicked around
From stairway to station we made a sensation
With the gadabout crowd

And Oh what a bargain! We're two easy targets
For the old men in the off-tracks
Who paid in palaver and crumpled old dollars
Which we squirreled away
In our rat-trap hotel by the freeway
And we slept in Sundays.

Your parents were anxious, your cool was contagious
At the old school
You left without leaving a note for your grieving
Sweet mother while your brother was so cruel.

But here in the alleys your spirits were rallied
As you learned quick to make a fast buck
In bathrooms and barrooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms
We bit our tongues,
Sucked our lips into our lungs 'til we were falling
Such was our calling

And here in our hovel we fused like a family
But I will not mourn for you
So take up your makeup and pocket your pills away
We're kings among runaways
On The Bus Mall
Down on The Bus Mall.

Among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants
Of the old town
We reigned at the pool hall with one iron cue ball
And we never let the bastards get us down

And we laughed off the quick tricks.
The old men with limp dicks
On the colonnades of the waterfront park
As four in the morning came on cold and boring
We huddled close in the bus stop enclosure, enfolding
Our hands tightly holding

Chorus
Track Name: The Mariner's Revenge Song
We are two mariners, our ship's sole survivors
In this belly of a whale
Its ribs our ceiling beams, its guts our carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill

You may not remember me - I was a child of three
And you a lad of eighteen
But I remember you and I will relate to you
How our histories interweave

At the time you were a rake and a roustabout
Spending all your money on the whores and hounds

You had a charming air all cheap and debonair
That my widowed mother found so sweet
And so she took you in - her sheets still warm with him
Now filled with filth and foul disease

As time wore on you proved a debt-ridden drunken mess
Leaving my mother a poor consumptive wretch

And then you disappeared. Your gambling arrears
The only thing you left behind
And then the magistrate reclaimed our small estate
And my poor mother lost her mind.

Then one day in spring my dear sweet mother died
But before she did I took her hand as she dying cried:

"Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole
And break his fingers to splinters
Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked
Clawing at the ceiling of his grave!"

It took me fifteen years to swallow all my tears
Among the urchins in the streets
Until a priory took pity and hired me
To keep their vestry nice and neat.

But never once in the employ of these holy men
Did I ever once turn my mind from the thought of revenge!

One night I overheard the prior exchanging words
With a penitent whaler from the sea
The captain of his ship, who matched you toe to tip,
Was known for a wanton cruelty.

The following day I shipped to sea with a privateer
In the whistle of the wind I could almost hear:

Chorus

There is one thing I might say to you
As you sail across the sea
Always your mother will watch over you
As you avenge this wicked deed

And then that fateful night we had you in our sight
After twenty months at sea
With your starboard flank abeam,
I was getting my muskets clean
When came this rumbling from beneath.

The ocean shook, the sky went black, and the captain quailed
And before us grew the angry jaws of a giant whale!

I don't know how I survived - the crew was chewed alive
I must've slipped between his teeth
But O! what providence, what divine intelligence!
That you should survive as well as me.

It gives my heart great joy to see your eyes fill with fear
So lean in close and I will whisper the last words you'll hear:

Chorus
Track Name: Of Angels and Angles
There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles
There's a ticking at the sill
There's a purr of a pigeon to break the still of day

As on we go drowning
Down we go away
And darling, we go a-drowning
Down we go away

There's a tough word on your crossword
There's a bedbug nipping a finger
There's a swallow, there's a calm
Here's a hand to lay on your open palm today

As on we go drowning
Down we go away
And darling, we go a-drowning
Down we go away

There are angels in your angles
There's a low moon caught in your tangles