The Decemberists, Bexhill, UK, 12 March 2011
This seems to be breakthrough time for The Decemberists. On our way to their gig at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion we read a four-star review with colour picture in The Guardian. I have a strong sense that their next tour will be in bigger venues. Take your chance now, while you can still see the whites of their eyes and what their fingers are doing…
The difference has been made by their current album, The King Is Dead, which is the one which hooked me – so I come to this review as a newbie, currently engaged in a fascinating tour through their back catalogue. The new record is a classic slice of stirring and often beautiful Americana embellished with contributions from Gillian Welch and REM’s Peter Buck. But they are not dependent on those star guests and the Bexhill versions of songs like ‘This Is Why We Fight’ and ‘Down By The Water’ were every bit as strong as the record’s. They have chosen well in augmenting their normal five-piece line-up for this tour with fiddle player and singer Sara Watkins, formerly of the fine Nickel Creek: she was in great voice throughout and added an important extra texture to the instrumentation. Not that the core band are short of variety: bouzouki, steel guitar, accordion and banjo were all in the mix at various points.
What has changed? My impression is that the current set of songs has brought a new coherence to an almost ludicrously wide range of styles and lyrical subject matter. Songwriter and front man Colin Meloy is clearly influenced by the English folk tradition and lengthy ballads about strange happenings. He also likes his prog. And a bit of biographical delving on the net has just confirmed my suspicion: he has a degree in creative writing. (There are pluses and minuses to that discipline when it comes to rock music, as co-educatee Sufjan Stevens amply demonstrates: striking writing about completely unexpected subjects but which sometimes slips into craft and fireworks for their own sakes and leaves the listener – this one anyway – asking why?; but then throwing in a gorgeously strange turn of phrase that is unarguably right, whatever it means. And, like Sufjan Stevens, Colin Meloy comes up with some lovely melodies to help the medicine go down.)
It was a major achievement to make songs with the diverse subject matter of ‘Red Right Ankle’, ‘Sixteen Military Wives’ and ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ seem part of an organic whole. (Especially when I tell you the last tells the convoluted story of how one sailor determined to kill another has found himself together with his victim in the belly of a whale, and that it is spread over more than ten minutes with audience participation and various bits of mugging from the band… The first-time concertgoer sometimes feels a little like an anthropologist happening upon the strange rituals of a previously undiscovered tribe.)
But it does all seem like an organic whole. The new album is not a complete shift – there have always been straightforward lines and powerful playing in The Decemberists’ music, it has just been brought to the fore in a more disciplined way. Within the clarity there is still a wonderful subtlety – try ‘Don’t Carry It All’:
So raise a glass to turnings of the season,And watch it as it arcs towards the sun,And you must bear your neighbour’s burden within reason,And your labours will be borne when all is done.
It’s ‘within reason’ which raises the writing to greatness. And anyone who can throw into ‘July Hymn”s beautiful evocation of summer a line like
The thrushes’ bleating battle with the wrens
Disrupts my reverie again.
and carry it off is definitely onto something.
It’s the last encore at Bexhill and ends a great gig beautifully. I’d go to four and a half stars.
(more like this at Eden On The Line)