The Boyfriend of the Week

September 29, 2009 [comment on this write-up]

When I was a little kid, my father used to come home from work sometimes still decked out in his flight suit (he was an A-4 pilot in the Marines). He'd often retreat right to the living room, plunk down in the comfy Norwegian chair, and beckon for one of us kids to come over and unlace and pull off his boots. As strange as this may sound, it was a task I revered, as I revered the man himself. And to this day, the smell of shoe leather and boot polish immediately sets my chest to pulling. I can't smell that combination -- a rare one, thankfully -- without suddenly yearning for my father.

(I love the way smells settle into memories like that.)

Some of those evenings, though, my dad would do more than just beeline to the living room. Instead, he'd burst through the front door singing something with great panache -- whatever was just playing on the oldies station in the car on the drive home. My dad, it should be noted, knows the lyrics to every single pop song written in the 50's and 60's, and these songs -- these "oldies" -- are the first real rock and roll songs I ever heard. By the time I was a sixth grader, I knew all the words to most of them myself (thanks in part to the film American Graffiti, which I've seen at least 86,000 times), and getting to go for a ride in the car with Dad almost always also meant getting to SING in the car with Dad, a pastime I still have not grown weary of.

Those old songs, though -- ach, so great. Unmatched.  And one of the things I love so much about so many of them is not just that they are almost ridiculously catchy (they so, so are!), but also that they frequently told really great, dramatic stories. You see, Dad and I are lyrics people. When we hear a song, we hear the words first and the music second. My focus has always been on what the singer was trying to tell me, be it a tale of woe or of woo, an expression of joy or pain, or a simple story about a bunch o' trucks in a convoy. The music is there for me too, of course, but it's less of an easy joy for me, because, I think, I can't listen to music without breaking it apart first into instruments and then into notes. I've played the piano most of my life, and so musical sounds. . . musical sounds are all horizontal to me. The music in a song splinters immediately in my head, and while that often leads to great appreciation (play a song for me that uses an unusual instrument or a strange set of keys or anything out of the ordinary, and I will immediately become infatuated with all its various sorts of noise. Why, hello, Awesome.), it is not as immediately emotionally powerful to me as the words in front of that music are.

Anyway, it seems to me that storytelling in songs is sort of a lost art these days -- at least when it comes to pop songs. Granted, I haven't listened to "popular" music in probably fifteen years, so I suppose it's possible that every song spun by Britney Spears is a fantastical tale of somesuch. Instead, most of the music I've heard in the last fifteen years is about the same old stuff: love, loss, dreams, witty observations about the world or life, etc. These songs can also be incredibly great, of course. In fact, sometimes they can be pretty goddamn spectacular (you know who you are, not that you're reading this, of course).  And it's not that I'm arguing that they don't also tell a story. But when I say "story," I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about songs that have actual characters and plots in them, like "Hot Rod Lincoln," "Dead Man's Curve," "Leader of the Pack" (vroom! vroom!), even "Alice's Restaurant," though that was not one my dad listened to, I don't think. I love songs like that -- it's like the best of both my favorite worlds, music and books combined.

And that's why when I heard my first Decemberists album about four months ago, I was immediately smitten beyond belief. I'd been hearing about them for years, but I'd heard one of their songs in a cafe once and hadn't been that impressed.  Thus, I'd been ignoring much of the hype for many of the years. But four or so months ago, I suddenly found myself completely bored with every single song on my iPod and I decided it was time to give some new things a listen. I got myself a copy of The Crane Wife and one Saturday morning sat down to listen to it.

I didn't make it past the first song ("The Crane Wife 3") for at least an hour. I just kept hitting the back button every time it ended so I could listen to it again. So I could get every word and then hear every instrument and then watch the notes spread out in front of me. By the end of the next week, I had been listening to nothing BUT that album, obsessively, constantly, and with never-ending astonishment.

Songs on The Crane Wife cover a huge range of topics, but most of them are similar in theme and period. They are songs that tell stories about pirates and maidens, tragic love, rogues, rascals, and more. They're sea-shanties, really, except it's not really that simple. Evidence: the song "The Island" now goes down in Meg Wood history as one of only two ten-minute songs in the entire world that I like ("Mushroom Cloud of Hiss" by Yo La Tengo is the other one).

"The Island" is three (three! three!) songs in one, actually, and I'll tell you this much: that song had me the moment singer/songwriter Colin Meloy rhymed "Sycorax" and "parallax." Really? Shakespeare and physics in a rhyming couplet together? Bring me to my knees, why don't you?

The Decemberists, helmed by the aforementioned Meloy and sailed onward by Chris Funk (guitar), Jenny Conlee (accordion, you sweet thing), Nate Query (violin), John Moen (percussion), and assorted guests (vocals, weird sounds), are a band from my neck of the woods (Portland, OR), but when I listen to them, you know what I smell? It's the strangest thing. I smell the coast of Rhode Island. It comes back to me, the smell of the salt water and the wet rocks and the rich, woodsy, charcoal smell of the dock that takes you aboard a tall ship, say.  That's a smell I haven't smelled in fifteen years, but, like with shoe leather and boot polish, it is richly connected to a memory and a feeling of peacefulness that I immediately want to grab and remake my own.

You can imagine, then, why I have become so taken with this band.

Anyway, after a little while, I decided to branch out in the world of the Decemberists, and bought two more of their albums. The first was their first, Castaways and Cutouts, which I have enjoyed a lot as well, though not nearly as obsessively as The Crane Wife. The second was Picaresque, which stands out for me as somehow different in sound from the other records. Still great -- in fact, in some ways maybe even the strongest of them all -- but not quite the same. It seems more "accessible" to me somehow, more mainstream. I think of it in the same way I think of The Road by Cormac McCarthy: it's the easy one. Start with it if you need help getting hooked, but don't go in thinking they'll all be that simple or clean. In any case, Picaresque is one I have to listen to on its own when I listen to it, whereas Castaways and Crane Wife seem to work best played back-to-back for me.

Then a month ago, I read something somewhere about their record The Hazards of Love. How it was a record of songs that all fit together to tell a story from the beginning of the album to the end. Initially, apparently, it was intended to serve as the music for a musical, but somehow Meloy lost touch with that goal and turned it into an album instead. I was intrigued immediately.

Three songs into Hazards, I knew it was time to write something about the Decemberists. Because this album -- this music, really -- is unlike anything else I have ever heard. It is wonderful. Wonderful. And I know that there are music folks out there who criticize the Decemberists, and Meloy in particular, for being too precious -- too calculated and too fictioned, too whimsical. But to be honest, while I can see their point, their point is the reason I like this music (plus, what the bloody hell's wrong with whimsy, you cantankerous old snipes?). It's crafted in a way that strikes me as completely unique. I've never heard anything like it. Hazards in particular has completely consumed me, and while there are, for me, for right now, reasons for that that go outside the simplicity of just "liking it," that doesn't negate the fact it's had a tremendous impact on me in the last few weeks.

Hazards of Love tells the story of two lovers, shape-shifting forest dweller William and his lovely lady Margaret, battling to be together while continually beset by various hurdles and villains (evil queen: bonus points!). The songs range from agonizing love ballads to bitter rage, just like, you know, actual relationships between real people and stuff.   But the language of these songs is what really struck me.  Every word seems so deliberate and purposeful, and songs like "Annan Water" or "Won't Want for Love" have been repeating over and over in my head for so long now they feel like old friends. 

Old sad friends, for sure, but beautiful ones.  They can stay.  You can all stay.  Stay, please.

But I pulled you and I called you here,
And I caught you and I brought you here.
These hazards of love, never more will trouble us.

Yours in whimsy,
Meg Wood

MacGyver Factor Score: 98.293%. Colin Meloy is on Twitter, where I have recently noticed he is incurring a slight backlash from a few others on Twitter because he so frequently tweets about the enormous number of followers he has (over a million and counting).  I myself do not mind this.  Know why?  You know that scene in The Breakfast Club when Claire gets stoned and says, "Do you know how popular I am?  I'm soooooo popular" and it kind of breaks your heart?  That's why.

Nevertheless, Colin, you might want to scale that back a bit, especially now that I've totally Claire'd you to the entire globe.  Plus, much as I adore and respect both your music and yourself (and I do, I so do, so much), it's an absolute crime that you have one-third more followers than Stephen Fry.  I'm sorry.  It's true and it needs to be said and I will say it.

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Boyfriend-Related Links

Decemberists official site
Colin Meloy on Twitter
Decemberists on Facebook, yep
Colin Meloy's 33 1/3 book
(about the Replacements record "Let It Be," though only sort of -- a must for any fan)

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