As beautiful as literature is, there's always a disturbing angle to it, lurking in the reality that it mirrors. Good literature is wildly fantastical and astonishingly inventive; it can build whatever reality it wants, but cannot deny the one that first gave it life. Certainly, we can agree the mirror exists; it's the reflections we see differently. The ultimate beauty of literature is that with each perceived reflection, a new world is born.
A devout devourer of literature, Colin Meloy recently imagined a new world and made an album, Her Majesty The Decemberists, of it. The lead singer/songwriter and guitarist of the Portland, Ore. band culls his songs (of which there are none like) from the quirky mug shots, shaky emotions and shoddy landscapes that came to life in his mind while lost in a great (likely WWI-era) novel.
One could suspect, with such a mind-blowing knack for prolific, literary lyricism, Meloy might lack on the other end of the songwriting spectrum, on the melodies and such. You can't have it all, can you? If you're Meloy, indeed you can. See, while Meloy was away, crossing the mighty sea and fighting the mighty battle, an incredible soundtrack blossomed, playing alongside his at once wretched and wondrous journeys.
Her Majesty... gently blends so many instruments, you'd think the quintet employed a symphony. But other than a few guest turns, The Decemberists' immensely and unquestionably gifted players Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Jesse Emerson, pianist/organist Jenny Conlee and percussionist Rachel Blumberg played each instrument. The album builds, crashes and breaks with help from the pedal steel, lap steel, synthesizer, Dobro, upright bass, accordion, Wurlitzer, Glockenspiel, trumpet, trombone, viola, cello, violin and harmonica. At the mast was producer Larry Crane (known for his work with Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith and Quasi) guiding the mighty musical ship in and out of shady waters.
Her Majesty opens with the eerie creaking of a ship at sea, a distant foghorn and a blood-curdling scream. "We set to sail on a/ Packet full of spice, rum and tea leaves," Meloy speak-sings, drawing out the syllables on lead track "Shanty for Arethusa." "We've emptied out all the/ Bars and the Bowery hotels/ Tell your daughters do not/ Walk the streets alone tonight." The instrumentation is at first minimal, building with acoustic strums, hi-hat shimmers and hazy strings before bursting into a rush of stomping beats, tambourine slaps, fiery bass and accordion hiccups. "To tell the tale of the Jewess and the Mandarin Chinese boy/ He led her down from her gilded canopy of cloth," Meloy continues, his passionate vocals sounding slightly accented as he begins the record's narration. "And through her blindfold she could make out the figures there before her."
This is Meloy's first offering of what is to be many songs made engrossing by the curiosity and awkwardness of libidinous innuendoes. "Let your legs loll/ On the lino/ 'Til your sinews spoil/ Will you stay here/ For a while, dear," Meloy sings on the exceptionally contagious, swinging piano-driven "Billy Liar."
The Decemberists' ode to LA, "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," mocks the plastic sprawl in the most entertainingly literate of ways, tearing it apart while giving in to its seduction. Backed with infectious, snappy playing, the dramatic, smarmy song feels like a guilty pleasure. "In streets and boulevards/ Orphans and oligarchs/ And here's a plaintive melody/ A truncated symphony/ An ocean's garbled vomit on the shore:/ Los Angeles, I'm yours," Meloy acquiesces, as much inclined as desperate. "O ladies, pleasant and demure/ Sallow cheek'd and sure/ (I can see your undies)."
If the album has a brooding, blushing, ultimately broken love song, "The Bachelor and the Bride" is it. The impending doom can be felt within the mighty rush of impassioned playing as Meloy's vocal intensity floods you with emotion: "'But I,' said the bachelor to the bride/ 'Am not waiting for tonight/ No I will box your ears/ And leave you stripped bare."
Fueled by bouncy melodies and horn howls, "The Soldiering Life" is equally gut-twistingly emotional as it muses on the simultaneous glorification and treachery of war on the hero-myths and the tragic losses. "But you/ My brother in arms/ I'd rather I'd lose my limbs/ Than let you come to harm," he sings, his tone sounding at once dire and aroused. "...The bullets may singe your skin/ And the mortars may fall/ But I/ I never felt so much life/ Than tonight/ Huddled in the trenches/ Gazing on the battlefield/ Our rifles blaze away/ We blaze away."
"Red Right Ankle" seems the answer to the question of which track means the most to Meloy. Led by the intricate strums of an acoustic guitar that sounds like trickling water, the somber song accepts the despair of its subject. "Some had crumbled you straight to your knees/ Did it cruel did it tenderly," he sings, sounding sad and understanding. "Some had crawled their way into your heart/ To rend its ventricles apart/ This is the story of the boys who loved you/ This is the story of your red right ankle."
Perhaps the most upbeat is "The Chimbley Sweep" for its chugging rhythm section, squishing accordion and huffing-and-puffing upright bass. "'O lonely urchin!' the widow cried/ 'I've not been swept since the day my husband died,'" Blumberg tweets, contributing her vocals for this line. "Her cheeks a blushing/ Her legs laid bare/ And shipwrecked there/ I'll shake you from your sleep."
Meloy's words stir your insides like good poetry, his imaginative tales climb into your mind, set up camp and stay awhile. But without the enchanting, heart-wrenching and totally affecting power that is the consequence of The Decemberists' music, the words would not have ever found life.
But that's just my interpretation. What's yours?