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Music / The Decemberists

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Left to right: Nate Query, John Moen, Colin Meloy, Jenny Conlee, and Chris Funk.

We are two mariners,
Our ships' sole survivors,
In this belly of a whale
Its ribs are ceiling beams
Its guts are carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill

Most bands write songs about How Much I Love You Babe, songs that go verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus with nice regular chord structures, maybe throw in a neat guitar solo in the middle and a fade-out ending, you know, something like that.

Most bands are not the Decemberists.

Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen form the band's current rotation, with Meloy, Funk and Conlee being the only original members remaining in the band (the band's best known former member is drummer/vocalist Rachel Blumberg who was a member of the band between Her Majesty and Picaresque). The songs, penned and sung by Meloy, vary from quirky, introspective pop about filicide to rollicking ballads about pirates and gypsies. (There is a disproportionate amount of drowning.) Meloy often employs the narrative form, creating baroque tales from the perspective of lovers, soldiers, and sailors.


  • 2001 - 5 Songs EP
  • 2002 - Castaways and Cutouts
  • 2003 - Her Majesty
  • 2004 - The Tain EP (based on the Irish story The Cattle Raid of Cooley)
  • 2005 - Picaresque
  • 2005 - Picaresqueties EP
  • 2006 - The Crane Wife: Humorously called "The best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses".
  • 2008 - Always The Bridesmaid singles series
  • 2009 - The Hazards of Love
  • 2011 - The King Is Dead
  • 2015 - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
  • 2015 - Florasongs EP (Songs that didn't make the cut for the previous album)
  • 2018 - I'll Be Your Girl

As of 2011, Colin Meloy has added novel writer to his list of accomplishments, having written the young adult novel WILDWOOD and its sequels, Under WILDWOOD and WILDWOOD Imperium. In February 2017, Colin announced a new book tilted The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid set to be released October the same year. The band also appeared live with Wilco and Letters to Cleo in the sixth season finale of Parks and Recreation. The band also performed the first of ''The Hamildrops," "Ben Franklin's Song," which was released in December 2017.

They provide examples of:

  • Abduction Is Love: or Rape Is Love: "We Both Go Down Together". Probable Unreliable Narrator.
  • Accordion to Most Sailors: The Decemberists, whose music generally has a "guitar and accordion rock" flavor, use the concertina/accordion in a lot of their sailing-themed songs.
  • After the End: "Calamity Song."
  • Album Intro Track: Prelude
  • Album Title Drop: "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" has the line "We're lining up the light-loafered and the bored bench warmers / Castaways and cutouts, fill it up."
  • Alliterative Title: Dracula's Daughter
  • Angry Mob Song: "When the War Came" - the rare non-Crowd Song example.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The Queen in The Hazards of Love: "My feet are the trunks... My head is the canopy high... My fingers extend to the leaves."
  • Asshole Victim: "The Mariner's Revenge Song" is all about the eponymous mariner hunting after the whaler who ruined his mother's life by being an abusive and drunken gambler that drove her and her three-year-old son into poverty (and eventually death for the mother). While the mariner's vengeance is portrayed as tragic and self-destructive, it's still made very clear that, if anything, the whaler deserves worse than anything the mariner could conceivably inflict upon him.
  • Attempted Rape: "Margaret in Captivity" and "The Island".
  • Audience Participation Song:
    • "16 Military Wives," primarily during the "la-di-da"s.
    • "The Mariner's Revenge Song", where Meloy demands that the audience provide the surrounding effects as the crew are consumed by the whale.
    • "Billy Liar," during the "ba-ba-da-ba" part.
    • "Chimbley Sweep" as well. Meloy encouraged audience members at a show to rip their bolted-together chairs apart and dance with them over their heads.
  • The Bard on Board: "The Island" is basically an abridgement of The Tempest set to Epic Rocking.
  • Based on a True Story: The Shankill Butchers were chillingly, chillingly real. The song does exaggerate a bit, but then, it was reflecting the fact that Northern Irish mothers came to use the Butchers as boogeymen.
    • Apology Song was based on Colin's experience actually losing his friend Stephen's bicycle. Madeline was found a year later... before Colin crushed it accidentally.
  • Bawdy Song: The punchline of "The Chimbley Sweep". Also, "Billy Liar", "A Cautionary Song", and possibly "The Landlord's Daughter."
    • "Philomena", by Colin's own admission, is "The dirtiest Decemberists song ever written".
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Hazards of Love: "And as the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her."
    • "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" may also qualify, as its lyrics seem to speak of a man who, after continually trying and failing to be a good person in prior relationships, has only found satisfaction in seducing married women and teenage girls.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: The video for "This Is Why We Fight".
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Combines with Lyrical Dissonance sometimes - see "July, July!" and "The Chimbley Sweep".
  • Break-Up Song: "Record Year For Rainfall".
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Brought up as a possibility in "The Mariner's Revenge Song", where the narrator fully acknowledges that his enemy may have forgotten about him:
    "You may not remember me
    I was a child of three
    And you a lad of eighteen"
  • Buried Alive: Discussed (along with Fingore) in "The Mariner's Revenge Song", but the intended victim ends up meeting a different fate.
  • California Collapse: Mentioned in "Calamity Song".
  • Celtic Mythology: The Tain, as well as the general "guitar and accordion rock" flavor of many of their songs.
  • Church of Happyology: The video for "Cavalry Captain" is made to look like an old, worn VHS tape used as a recruitment tool for a cult called "Decemberism", with Colin playing its filthy rich leader.
  • Concept Album: The Hazards of Love. The Tain is also a concept EP.
  • Continuity Nod: Possible in the case of "Leslie Anne Levine". The woman in "We Both Go Down Together" is considered by some to be the mother of the title character. "The Chimbley Sweep" also may or may not be narrated by a minor character from "Leslie Anne Levine" - but no one can say for sure, as "Leslie Anne Levine" has a verse where the singer tells of having made an acquaintance with a chimney sweep, which is unlikely to be true unless Our Ghosts Are Different is in play since the first verse already said she was a stillborn.
  • Creepy Child: The ghosts of the Rake's children in "Revenge!", who vividly recount their deaths at their dear daddy's hands and announce they've come back for him to a chillingly off-kilter instrumental featuring plenty of screechy violin. Though can you blame them?
  • Crowd Song: "Sons & Daughters" and "The Rake's Song", for which the audience is encouraged to sing along with the outro refrain of "Hear all the bombs fade away" and for which it's popular to join in on the repeating "All right! All right! All right!" respectively, although any of their songs can become this in a live performance.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: "The Tain": "I will bleed your heart through a samovar soon". Ow.
  • Darker and Edgier: "The Tain" is downright eerie, which is saying something considering the source material.
  • Death of a Child: There are at least six songs about dead children ("Leslie Ann Levine", "The Infanta", "The Rake's Song"/"Revenge!", "The Chimbley Sweep", "The Bachelor and the Bride"), and possibly more based on interpretation (such as "Dear Avery" and "Burying Davy").
  • Doorstop Baby: "The Chimbley Sweep".
  • Driven to Suicide: The implied fate of the narrator from "I Was Meant for the Stage".
  • Epic Rocking: The Tain, "The Island: Come & See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning", "The Mariner's Revenge Song", "The Crane Wife, Parts Two & Three", and "The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You'd Not Come Back".
    • Notably, The Hazards of Love is performed live as one 50-minute song. Then again, it is a concept album.
    • Live performances of "When the War Came" and "The Chimbley Sweep".
  • Everyone Has Standards: Jenny Conlee could play songs about homicide, suicide, and infanticide, but "Culling of the Fold" was too violent for her. At her insistence, the song was only available by redeeming a code on The Crane's Wife interior on their website or downloading it from iTunes. The chorus may explain why:
    "Ply her heart with gold and silver,
    And take your sweetheart down to the river
    Dash her on the paving stones,
    It may break your heart to break her bones,
    But someone's gotta do the culling of the fold..."
  • The Fair Folk: The Hazards of Love's Forest Queen, in all likelihood. Overlaps with Anthropomorphic Personification, as seen above.
  • Genius Loci: The Annan Water in The Hazards of Love, which responds to William's pleas to stop raging so he can cross in turn for him letting it take him after he rescues Margaret... and then comes to collect.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: The Forest Queen in The Hazards of Love, who resorts to tyrannical and underhanded measures to separate her adoptive son William from his human lover Margaret.
  • Gorn: "Culling of the Fold". They might or might not be meant literally, but either way, the lyrics describe committing acts of violence in a direct and unceremonious fashion.
  • Historical Fiction: A possible interpretation for "Here I Dreamt I was an Architect". It might also be about famous literature, Reincarnation, Immortality, or the narrator's dreams. It's not all too clear, really.
  • I Call It "Vera": Stephen's bicycle Madeline in "The Apology Song".
  • I Will Wait for You: "Yankee Bayonet", "From My Own True Love Lost At Sea".
  • Intercourse with You: "Oceanside," and possibly "Of Angels and Angles."
  • In the Style of: You might make a case for a song here or there, but the only song where they've explicitly copped to this is "Down By The Water," which is their tribute to R.E.M..
  • It's All My Fault: At the end of The Hazards of Love, William mourns to Margaret that "I pulled you, and I called you here," probably referring to how if it hadn't been for him, she would never have come to the forest.
  • Legion of Lost Souls: "The Legionnaire's Lament."
  • Location Song: "Yankee Bayonet" by centers on a girl from Oconee County, SC whose sweetheart is killed in the Civil War at Manassas (i.e. one of the two Battles of Bull Run).
  • Loudness War: While definitely not the worst offenders, their songs can delve into this at times.
  • Lyric Swap: in "July, July!", the line "the water rolls down the drain" changes to "the blood rolls down the drain" for one refrain.
  • Lyrical Cold Open: "The Legionnaire's Lament", "Billy Liar", "Valerie Plame".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Why, yes, I'll have a big fat cauldronful: "The Legionnaire's Lament", the final verse of "Los Angeles, I'm Yours", "16 Military Wives", the end of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" in a rare instrumental example, "O Valencia!", "Culling of the Fold", "A Cautionary Song", "July, July!", "The Chimbley Sweep", "Calamity Song"...
  • Madness Mantra: "Mariner's Revenge": "Fiiiind him, biiiiind him, tie him to a pole and break his fiiiiiingers to spliiiiinters ..."
    • Also "Someone's got to do/the culling of the fold..."
  • Mafia Princess: The heroine of "O Valencia!" seems implied to be this, given the framing of modern-day violent warfare between gang-affiliated families that results in even her father going "all unhinged" when he learns of her romantic involvement with the hero.
  • Mid Word Rhyme: "The Legionnaire's Lament".
    "Medicating in the sun
    Pinched doses of laudanum
    Longing for the old fecund-
    -ity of my homeland."
  • Monster Whale: "The Mariner's Revenge Song" features an absolutely enormous whale, whose teeth are implied to be human-sized if not larger. It attacks two ships without apparent provocation, sinking them both and eating or otherwise killing many of their crew.
  • Murder Ballad:
    • "The Mariner's Revenge Song", in which the narrator sings of his lifelong vengeful grudge against the man who caused his mother to die young, depressed, and in poverty... and who he's singing the song to, very glad that they're trapped alone together after their respective ships' crews are swallowed by a giant whale.
    • "The Rake's Song", in which the title character recounts his remorseless murder of his children after the death of his wife so he could go back to a life without obligation.
    • "The Culling of the Fold" is... ambiguous, but is easily heard as this depending on whether one assumes there's follow-through on the lyrics.
  • Mrs. Robinson: The widow in "The Chimbley Sweep".
  • My Beloved Smother: The Forest Queen in The Hazards of Love. She greatly disapproves of her adoptive son William's romance with the normal woman Margaret, guilt-tripping him with having saved him has a baby and granted him immortality when they confront each other over the relationship, forcing him to promise her his obedience in exchange for one last day with his beloved even as he tells her that "you owe me life", and then not even letting him have that.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: "Sixteen Military Wives" is a criticism of American politics, culture, and the exploitation and complacency therein, specifically circa George W. Bush's presidency.
  • New Sound Album: The King Is Dead brings with it an Americana sound best described as Bruce Springsteen gone Country (that steel guitar!). Seriously. Other albums do exhibit subtle changes, but none presented as big of a change as this one.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: "We Both Go Down Together" may count, or it may be an inversion depending on how you interpret the line "You wept but your soul was willing."
  • Not-So-Safe Harbor: A few of their more maritimal shanties count: the antagonist of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" ruined his lover's life by blowing all his money on booze, gambling, and brothels and then leaving her to shoulder his debts before going on to become the abusive captain of a whaling ship, the woman's son following him into the mariner's life on a privateer ship in ruthless pursuit of vengeance; "Shanty for the Arethusa" paints a portrait of hedonistic sailors heading out from their places of indulgence back to sea, urging the people of the town to "tell your daughters do not walk the streets alone tonight"(plus there are ghosts!); and "A Cautionary Song" tells of a woman working as a prostitute on a harbor, her sailor clientele illustrated as... quite a bit less than than gentlemanly with her time.
  • Oh, Crap!: Discussed in "The Mariner's Revenge Song," where the eponymous mariner is very pleased about the villainous whaler slowly realizing more and more how completely screwed he is in that he's been Swallowed Whole by a Monster Whale, and the only person he's stuck with is the child of the woman whose life he once ruined and for whom he's been seeking bloody vengeance ever since.
  • Offing the Offspring: "The Rake's Song" is all about its title character becoming a father and then killing his children after the death of his wife.
  • The Perfect Crime: Fittingly, "The Perfect Crime #1" and "The Perfect Crime #2".
  • Pirates: Also whalers, privateers, slavers, smugglers, and other miscellaneous mariners.
  • Precision F-Strike: While not the most child-friendly thematically, the band's lyrics are rather light on cursing outside of live performances, and so when they do drop a four-letter word, it tends to carry this effect.
    • From "Clementine": "You slept in your overalls/after the wrecking ball/bereft you of house and of home/and left you with sweet fuck-all."
    • From The Perfect Crime #1: "I got the mob boss bought, got a letter from the DEA/I got a mockup of the lockup where they stock up all their fuckin' change"; and "So we ran around town with the cops stepping on our tails/Because we'd rather break depth than a French fuck in county jail/To pull the perfect crime, this is the perfect crime!"
    • Subverted and utterly obliterated by "Ben Franklin's Song": "Do you know who the fuck I am?/Yeah, do you know who the fuck I am?/I am seventy-six-and-I'll-Still-Kick-Your-Ass Fuckin' Franklin"
  • Privateer: See above.
  • Protest Song: "16 Military Wives," complete with a video that skewers George W. Bush and features a Model United Nations conference gone whack.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: In "The Mariner's Revenge Song", the titular mariner only gets his revenge after being Swallowed Whole by a whale.
  • Queer Romance: "On The Bus Mall" is about two drug-addicted male prostitutes falling in love. Also confirmed in interviews to be the subject of "The Soldiering Life", which depicts two male army squadmates becoming especially close companions.
  • Rape as Drama: "The Landlord's Daughter", "The Abduction of Margaret", "We Both Go Down Together", possibly "The Chimbley Sweep", "Odalisque", "The Bachelor and the Bride". They managed at least one per album until The King Is Dead.
  • Referenced by...: William Shakespeare: Constantly.
  • Revenge Ballad:
  • Ribcage Stomach: "The Mariner's Revenge Song", the protagonist has just been swallowed by a whale, and the song contains the line "Its ribs are ceiling beams", implying this trope.
  • Roaring Rampageof Revenge: "The Mariner's Revenge Song", if you couldn't tell by the title.
  • Rock Opera: The Hazards of Love.
  • Rouge Angles of Satin: In the "Make It Better" video, when the band is performing on a foreign talk show and the band member's names are shown in subtitles, two of them have apparently fallen victim to auto-correct: Colon Meloy and Chris Funky. This is, of course, part of the Stylistic Suck of the show.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: And how.
  • Short-Range Long-Range Weapon: In the video for "Why We Fight", the bow and quiver of arrows the guy with the red scarf is holding still haven't been shot by the time the video ends with the older kids almost upon them.
  • Shout-Out: The mention of "The Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab" and the video for "Calamity Song" are Shout Outs to the late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.
  • Signature Headgear: Chris Funk likes to wear a trilby.
  • Silly Love Songs: Subverted in "Yankee Bayonet". Played straight in "Oceanside". Played straight, if rather unconventionally in "The Bandit Queen."
  • The Something Song: "The Rake's Song", "Lake Song", "The Mariner's Revenge Song", "Calamity Song", "A Cautionary Song", "Raincoat Song", "Apology Song", "Baby Song", "A Beginning Song"...
  • Sophisticated as Hell: In "Los Angeles, I'm Yours".
    "Old ladies, pleasant and demure
    Sallow-cheeked and sure
    I can see your undies"
  • Sound-Only Death: A rare musical variant, where the Mariner killing the Whaler in some assuredly horrible way is accompanied by an increasingly frantic and heavy tempo in the instrumentals that is framed as being reminiscent of stabbing someone.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers:
    • The lovers in "O Valencia!" are very much this - their situation is described as a straight-up Romeo and Juliet situation between disapproving families.
    • One interpretation of "We Both Go Down Together" - if it isn't sung by an Unreliable Narrator and everything said in it can be taken at face value, though there's emphasis on if, then it's about a couple Driven to Suicide by classism.
    • Margaret and William, protagonists of The Hazards of Love, are a mortal woman and a shapeshifter adopted by The Fair Folk. Their love story pays clear Homage to the Child Ballads, notably "Tam Lin" and "The Mother's Malison", and unfortunately for them, part of that deal is in the inclusion of a disapproving and possessive forest queen/mother on the leading man's end and the couple ultimately drowning together.
  • Stealth Pun: The line "I guess we have some time to kill" in "The Mariner's Revenge Song".
  • Swallowed Whole: In "The Mariner's Revenge Song", both the protagonist and the villain end up suffering this at the hands of a gigantic whale. The improbability is lampshaded by the protagonist, who credits their survival to divine intervention.
  • Taking You with Me: The end of the full "O Valencia!" video.
  • Take That!/"The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" consists 4 minutes of Colin Meloy hating on Los Angeles in great detail.
  • Tickertape Parade: The band use this term in their song ''The Perfect Crime #2."
    "It was like a tickertape parade
    When the plastique on the safe was blown away"
  • Unreliable Narrator: "Here I Dreamt I was an Architect", "We Both Go Down Together".
  • Unusual Euphemism: "The Chimbley Sweep". The title character describes an encounter with a widow thusly:
    "I've not been swept since the day my husband died."
    Her cheeks are blushing, her legs laid bare.
  • Uptown Girl: Gender-inverted: "We Both Go Down Together" is about a wealthy young man who falls in love with a poor girl. It doesn't end well for either of them.
  • Used Future: Appears to be the case in the video for "This Is Why We Fight".
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: "The Shankill Butchers".
    "They used to be just like me and you
    They used to be sweet little boys
    But something went horribly askew
    Now killing is their only source of joy"
  • Villain Song:
    • "The Rake's Song", in which the title character and one of the two antagonists of The Hazards of Love recounts his backstory: he got married as a young man, felt that the subsequent birth of his and his wife's children was a curse, witnessed said wife dying giving birth to their "ugly" third daughter, murdered their kids to get rid of his "burden", and was never bothered about any of it, simply happy afterwards to be living "easy and free".
    • Depending on your interpretation, "The Culling of the Fold" could be this, given the violent imagery its singer urges their target to fulfill: "Dash her on the paving stones/It may break your heart to break her bones/But someone's got to do the culling of the fold..."
  • War Is Hell: The lyrics of "This Is Why We Fight".
    • Not to mention the harrowing and gruesome "When the War Came".
  • We All Die Someday: "Easy Come, Easy Go". The lyrics recount the accidental death of an acrobat, a road accident, and a popular young woman's death at the hands of an outwardly "stand-up" serial murderer unto the refrain that "You never really know when the whistle's gonna blow", making it clear that the title refers to the fragility of life.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The heroine's pregnancy drives the action in The Hazards of Love — up until track seven. The baby's never mentioned after that. Its ultimate fate is likely... grim, given that the story of the album takes place in only about two days, Margaret is far along enough in her pregnancy to be showing, the Queen wants William's child out of the picture as much as his lover, and she's enlisted the Rake in that, who (much like Colin Meloy as a storyteller) is no stranger to infanticide; not to mention both parents die in the finale, meaning best-case scenario is that the kid was born and left an orphan. Still, nothing is stated.
  • "When I'm Gone" Song: "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" is partly a Type 1 (song from a deceased person to their living beloved)—partly, because it's a duet between a young Confederate soldier (sung by Colin Meloy) killed at Bull Run/Manassas (First or Second is unclear). His living pregnant wife in South Carolina (guest Laura Veirs in the album version) sings an I Will Wait for You song. The soldier is telling his wife not to be sad and miss him, they will be reunited somehow (as he says, "I will come on the breath of the wind"); she accepts that, but says she'll be sad and miss him anyway. Oddly, the soldier's part seems to be based heavily on a famous "when I'm gone" letter, namely the letter from Rhode Islander and Union Army officer Sullivan Ballou, who wrote to his wife in much the same vein (including the wind-based imagery) and was killed at First Bull Run.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: "Dear Avery".
    "There are times life will rattle your bones
    And will bend your limbs
    You're still far away the boy you've ever been"
  • Your Makeup Is Running: "The Tain".
  • Your Mom: The subject of "A Cautionary Tale".