Sunday, May 19, 2024

We Were Singing Hosanna: Taking Vows & Having Visions with the Decemberists in 2024


The Decemberists
The Pageant
St. Louis
May 17, 2024
Not just five stars, not just ten stars, but all the stars, and all the galaxies too. Utterly incredible show.

The Decemberists are a band I have always loved, but a band where I have never completely taken the plunge from the admiring place of being a casual fan, even one desiring to be a serious fan and not yet a superfan.  

There are reasons for the prickly and primal attraction to them, as well as the reticence or hesitance to flying with them to wild mystical heights, then falling harder into the hollow of their mortal truths. I guess I am a more-than-casual Decemberists fan (having paid to see them enough) and who wants to be a more serious Decemberists fan but sees that might require some sacrifice and commitment. With them, I admit that there’s this mythopoetic learning curve and a deep listening requirement. I have dabbled and even dabbled deeply, if that’s a thing, but maybe now’s the time to circle back, study the catalog, and beckon the vows needed to fully imbibe their vision. 

I have followed them at least since the 00’s, when I discovered Hazards of Love as it was released in 2009, just a few weeks before getting sober. I remember telling a friend that the album sounds better when I’m high. The friend says every album is better high, and now I say the listening experience has to offer the surreal portal on its own, without the frills and thrills that kill for an addict like me. Hazards of a lush learning sober love from simple drunk lust. This reflection will periodically loop back to the mind-altering aspect of their music, for sure. 

Sometimes, I cannot believe the Decemberists are from Portland or are an American band. Discovering the Decemberists reminded me of discovering British freak folk like Pentangle, Steeleye Span, or Richard Thompsons, on someone else’s vinyl back in the 1990s. If the Decemberists aren’t from Albion proper, they are at least from Narnia or some other enchanted land of our magical imaginations. Even though one podcaster implied that being from Portland means essentially the same thing for indie-rock hipsters, their sound suggests something even more. 

Some say Hazards of Love was a concept album but me this is a concept band, for they are the curly crunchy floral core within cottage-core, the hand-me-down, home-made, an analog vintage as concurrently authentic as pretentious as that cursive font on the t-shirt we just bought. Keep in mind that pretentious here is part of the authenticity, not an adversary to it. Or as one podcaster put it: this also means that a four-syllable word is always better than a two-syllable word, and big words do not even have to be used correctly. In that sense, Decemberists lyrics are both arcane and postmodern, both archeological as in a tactile archive found in an abandoned castle and totally disposable as in pop-cultural rapid-fire gibberish. 

Taking the fandom pledge here feels risky to a fault for traversing some aesthetic fault-lines, like rewatching Star Wars movies alone or finally getting around to reading Tolkien or Joyce or even more realistically, let’s say, finally reading the literary series written by the band’s singer and songwriter Colin Meloy. Are you sure? I mean, they said, you can microdose or abstain, are you sure you want the heroic dose? 

It’s like I am walking that woodland trail with a rock in my pocket, that I am certain will transmute into a precious gem, but it hasn’t quite yet, because I have not walked deeper into the bramble and the dark, not yet. Maybe that arbor-to-feral metaphor spilled simply from the cosmic music fan, after witnessing the live debut of “Don’t Go To The Woods,” from the forthcoming album--As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again--out June 14. 

The way I inhale albums and attend shows today is reaching a religious period, a forever sonic catechism. This is a band so worthy of that reception and attention. The Decemberists take a bold move this spring to tour just ahead of an album that isn’t out yet, but from the tracks that are “officially out” to the two debuts we heard on a Friday in Missouri, I can say my anticipation will surely build in the days that remain before the full set drops. 

The speech-of-sorts that Colin Meloy inserted into “Burial Ground” was spicy and stopped my heart for a moment. Something like (paraphrasing here): I see you singing along. Singing along is part of this show whether we like it or not. But don’t let the catchy chorus fool you. This song is about death. This song is about our future home. We are all going to the dirt when we die. Now I just can’t shake that chorus that shudders in the back of my brain as I type, sucking gratitude from last night’s music memories, sucking brain fuel from caffeine and channeling into this laptop keyboard on a Saturday afternoon in a St. Louis coffeehouse. We woke up another day on this side of the dirt.

Several years after he wrote it in the build-up of 2016, Colin Meloy singing “Severed” so few days before another presidential election, ripped sanity from its thin scaffold as the theater-sized venue shook with acerbic hooks. This catchy music always reveals a darkness, a morbid joy if that makes sense. Meloy has said of this song: “The character in the song, the first-person character, is a demagogue, absolutely, so it was an exploration of, ‘What is demagoguery, and where does it come from?’ as we were seeing this very public figure express these kind of insane and incredible sentiments in public.” Simultaneously terrible and beautiful. 

I sennsed similar erosions of collective sanity and serenity but also defiant cynical jubilation from “16 Military Wives.” Okay, so is this how it is. The world is completely trash in the political-warfare side of things, and here is this brilliant poet to make an indie-pop masterpiece about it. Okay, I need this in my mental coping with this crazed world. 

It’s a predictable lane for literary author nerds to appreciate literary songwriters, but Colin Meloy fulfills this vocation in such consistently mind-blowing iterations, that it gives me pause to simply breathe the same air as him in this room, to just get to sit at the feet of this wild witness to this world in all its horror and hope. As in awe as I am of his lyrical daring, he also feels oddly familiar, dressed as he is like so many of my academic colleagues. A podcaster said this too: they look normal, if on the eccentric weirdo side of normal. 

Staring at Colin Meloy this time, in his button-down smart-casual shirt, fitted slacks, and low-rise Doc Martens, I thought: he just doesn’t look like my colleague, he is my colleague, he is every itinerary English professor ever. He has a leather satchel. Inside the leather satchel, he has a leather-bound journal. In that journal, he writes these very lyrics that I am tripping-out about, he writes them with a fancy pen with refillable ink. You might think he drives a Subaru or a Prius, but I say it’s a beat-up old Volvo or VW that runs on biodiesel and has a standard shift. 

Let me try to arrive at my conclusion which is collusion with the spiritual realm: releasing a 20-minute prog-rock experiment about Joan of Arc as a “single” for an upcoming full-length album is an absolutely over-the-top move of inner confidence. It’s “beyond beyond,” as my mother likes to say. 
Meloy says of “Joan in the Garden”: “I got into a Joan of Arc kick after reading Lydia Yuknavitch’s beautifully batshit novel ‘The Book of Joan.’ I wanted to make my own version of Joan — but the song that came was as much about the creative process as it was about the actual woman, about angelic visitation and creative visitation and the hallucinogenic quality of both.” Wait what? I listened to the song maybe twice when it dropped, was awed by its audacity, but did the dabble thing and moved on.

Now they are playing this for an encore. No more “hits.” No more singalongs. You could slip out early, but I don’t advise it. It’s like eating an edible, doing shrooms, getting on the DMT rocketship whether you want to or not. It’s like church and first communion and sensory deprivation and sensory overload and wait did I just read that Mike Mills from R.E.M. sings backup on the studio version? Sacred psychedelic songcraft! If you listen closely, we are singing hosanna, hosanna yeah! 

Yes, I am that guy pulling up the lyrics on my phone to fully grok this while they rock this. What about that final furious stretch, it just wrecks me:
She is daughter and son
The imperium undone
All the autocrats are laid
To waste
To waste
Oh holy whore androgyne
Come and sunder the stop signs
Break it all so we can build again
Bring on duke or dauphin
Blood will flow like a fountain
As it ever was, so it will be again
Will be again

Not only is the music utterly mind-boggling and face-melting in serious degrees, the story line is everything I have loved about the likes of William Blake and Allen Ginsberg and Jesus themselves and all the better messiahs and avatars of non-coercive religious teaching, pure revolutionary and anti-authoritarian spirituality. 

This is the kind of song I imagine stoner-nerds in the late 70s and early 80s listening to over and again in some black light basement, blasted outta their bloody mind-bodies, writing term papers on it to impress their ex-hippy English teachers. I might have gone on Reddit after midnight and after the show, just to read the reactions from the venn diagram of Reddit-nerds and Decemberists fans from when this masterpiece dropped. 

I am just going to finish this ramble, not because I am done spinning glory about how badass the Decemberists are right now, but because we have to drive back to Tennessee. So my last move rather than an ending is a to-be-continued, but not before I paste some of the best comments as seen from Reddit, because they are just that good, just about “Joan in the Garden”:

-Love it when indie bands do long-ass songs that are just three or four normal songs in a trench coat. 
-Colin: “we do have some space left on the vinyl and I did just watch Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii…”
-Okay now, just what in the Pink Floyd Mars Volta is going on here?!
-This song is so good I’m about to make it my whole personality for the next few months
-This is some serious blue balls. Just when it feels like it should explode into the heaviest thing they've ever done, there's several minutes of outer space noise, followed by "Breaking The Law" by Judas Priest.
-I heard the water dispenser humming at work and thought it was part of the song.
-It’s absolutely a must hear live. I’m about to follow them on tour. I almost died when they played it.
-Anybody else experience an effect like the music expanded?  It was like my head opened, and the speakers were floating in the room?  I wasn't on anything, and I was able to duplicate it. 


No comments: