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The Decemberists Take Me Back And Forth

The Decemberists perform in Toronto
Corey Atad

This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!


Thirty-five is a little early for me to call what I’ve been experiencing a midlife crisis. Besides, it’s not like I’ve bought a Harley or something—I’m too broke for that. But I’ve been having a time, as it were, the last couple years, and it’s put me in what I’d call an existential mood. There’s a longing to envision my future, a good future, mixed in with deep nostalgia, feelings of regret, the whole nine. With that mindset, earlier this month, in the span of two days, I went to concerts featuring Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, and The Decemberists. The concerts were great. My mood only got more existential.

I discovered The Decemberists the old-fashioned way: a girl I had a crush on in high school recommended them, along with some others. I still remember the list of albums she wrote down for me, which included Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and Elliott Smith’s Either/Or. An indie starter kit. Death Cab was on there, though I already knew them. So were Imogen Heap, Bright Eyes, The Weakerthans, and a bunch of other albums that have stayed in rotation for two decades. Oddly, though, of all those bands I came to at the time, The Decemberists are unique in that I kept up with their new stuff.

That served me well when I went to see the band at History, Drake’s venue in Toronto, where they played a very “Here’s our new album” kind of show, and the other tracks were mostly deeper cuts. If you’d come to the concert hoping to hear the big tracks off The Crane Wife, what you got was “The Crane Wife 1,” instead of the significantly more popular “The Crane Wife 3” or “O Valencia!” And yeah, I would have loved to hear those songs, too, or “The Hazards of Love 2” or “The Infanta” or “Here I Dreamed I Was an Architect.” Despite a rousing performance of the Bush-era protest song “16 Military Wives” in which lead singer Colin Meloy led the audience in dueling chants of the song’s “la de da” refrain, you could sense impatience in the audience, who were diverse in age, but clearly trended older, and were hoping to have their nostalgia stoked. For the encore, the band played “Joan in the Garden,” the splendid, 20-minute closing track off their upcoming album As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. A fair number of people began heading for the exits. I get it.

The Decemberists are a living band to me. They take me back to high school, but it’s more like they’ve been with me since then, like some close friends. I’ve always felt a bit dorky being a fan of theirs, of the sea shanty band. And they do write sea shanties. Meloy proudly admits it. One of their old songs is literally called “Shanty for the Arethusa.” Their lyrically swashbuckling folk tales are musically opulent and ornate, narratively epic, and often on the lengthy side. They’re not exactly prog, but some of their stuff is, and there’s a definitely maximalist prog spirit to The Decemberists that carries connotations of lameness. It’s theater-kid energy. You won’t catch me arguing that they’re cool. That’s not the point. It’s the sweep of the music that gets me. It’s the same earnest faith in the esoteric theatricality of rock that drives my love of Jim Steinman or even King Crimson. Yet they retain some of that West Coast alt-rock pluck, allowing their concerts to descend into jam band-like performance at times, and at others bringing the stripped-down style of a more polished college radio act.

Through the mid-2010s, The Decemberists indulged their more R.E.M.-like side, including having R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck join in on several tracks from their 2011 album The King Is Dead. The Americana-infused album may stand as my favorite of theirs, ahead of classics like The Crane Wife, or their big rock opera The Hazards of Love. 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World continued their jaunt into a (slightly) more straightforward rock style. There was their excellent 2017 English folk rock side project Offa Rex, with singer Olivia Chaney, which produced the album The Queen of Hearts. The 2018 Decemberists album I’ll Be Your Girl, which added a heavy synth sound reminiscent of Depeche Mode and a depressive lyrical bite reflecting post-2016 despair. I’ve happily welcomed all these albums into my regular rotation, and was glad to see songs from them performed live, even if it meant the audience lapsed into bored spells. As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again will be The Decemberists' first album in six years, and an epic double album no less, featuring help from R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and The Shins’ James Mercer. I’m already loving the prog excess on the first tracks released, and they sounded great on stage.

It was a good concert. I had a great time. And then I sort of fell into a funk. I’ve been in a funk for a while. It probably started two years ago, when I had to put my dog down. But really it started about a year ago, when I was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, the diagnosis was inconclusive about exactly which kind of blood cancer I had, but being told by a doctor that you might not make it to 45 offers its own kind of clarity. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of my emotional journey. You know how cancer stories go; some of you more intimately than others. Months of tests, a major surgery, and biopsy all led to a final diagnosis of hairy cell leukemia. Look it up if you like. The upshot is 45 becomes something more like 60 or 70, and that’s not factoring in whatever medical advancements might come in the next three decades. In the meantime I’m just waiting for the cancer to progress enough to require treatment, which might take a few years. I’ll be fine. It’s all fine.

Nevertheless, you can see how recent experiences would have me assessing and reassessing my relationship with myself over time. It just so happened that two days before The Decemberists' show, Death Cab and The Postal Service were also playing Toronto. I hadn’t intended to see the two Ben Gibbard-fronted bands. I didn’t even know they were coming to town. I heard about the show the night of, found out there were tickets available and the Leafs playing Game 7 against the Bruins meant prices were reasonably low, so I jumped on it. I went from planning a lazy night in to scanning my pass at Scotiabank Arena in the span of about 45 minutes. Only after that did I realize the show was part of Gibbard and company’s tour celebrating the 20th (now 21st) anniversaries of Death Cab’s Transatlanticism and The Postal Service’s Give Up. They took the stage and played each album in full. The encore even included a repeat of "Such Great Heights" done in the style of Iron & Wine, as featured on the Garden State soundtrack. It was uncut nostalgia, and I loved every moment.

The contrast between the two concerts—one looking backward; the other steadily marching forward—struck me hard. Here was my high school self laid before me. All the mistakes I’d made, my anxieties, my crushes, my expanding taste. Watching Gibbard and Jenny Lewis trade verses on “Nothing Better,” with its Rashomon-like competing points of view on a breakup, awakened memories of days spent skipping class, finding a corner somewhere on my school’s third floor, flicking through my fourth-gen iPod, constructing my own little space outside the paralyzing stresses of being 17. Listening to Death Cab takes me back. It’s why I still listen to those albums, beyond just the music being good. I put on Something About Airplanes or Plans and I venture back, and somehow even the unpleasantness has a glow, trapped there in the amber of the past. Narrow Stairs is the last new album from Death Cab that means anything to me. That was 2008. The band has released four albums since then, all of which I’ve sampled; all of which I’ve viscerally rejected. Gibbard’s lyrics these days come off like imitation Death Cab, and their sound has grown stale. I don’t long for new Death Cab music. I don’t need it. Those earlier albums mean what they mean to me as a reflection of the time I first obsessed over them, and that’s more than enough.

The Hazards of Love came out only a year after Narrow Stairs, but it feels so much more fresh to me. Gibbard’s emo longing exists in another lifetime, while Meloy’s operatic ambition remains very alive. Jumping between songs from across more than two decades at their show, it was obvious just how consistent The Decemberists have been. The music has stayed great and recognizably them, even as they’ve run the gamut of styles. It’s the adventurousness, I think, that I respond to. When I think back on high school, I think of The Decemberists, but listening to their music doesn’t automatically put me back in English class with Ms. Kee and those crushes of mine, at least not the way putting Death Cab on does. Instead, they’ve grown with me as I’ve changed and matured and even come to face my own mortality. There’s real progression there, each album another marker along the road of my life, and with the possibility of new and exciting things still to come.

I think a lot about what’s to come these days. The future scares me, but I yearn for it anyway. Such is the plight of being alive, of wanting to see more, hear more, learn more, experience more, feel more. An ocean lies ahead, its call beckoning me with visions of romance and adventure. So weigh the anchor, hoist the mainsail. “I’ll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger,” Meloy once sang. “Though I think I might lie here a little longer.”

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