Colin Meloy’s story starts out a lot like that of many other smart, creative, twenty- or thirty-something Americans. He was born into a loving family, the son of forward-thinking parents and the brother of a now-published novelist sister. He went to college in the liberal Pacific Northwest, studied creative writing, and formed a band. It’s this next part where his story begins to differ, ever so slightly, and where he’s earned occasional, misguided scorn.
Formed in 2001, the Decemberists quickly began releasing records, first with the support of a local boutique indie label, and then with the considerably more substantial support of the legendary Kill Rock Stars label. After a couple years of touring, developing an intensely devoted fanbase and being lavished with praise from the music press, they signed on with Capitol Records. They continue to be critical favorites, for the most part. They play sold out shows all over the world. They’ve done the late-night talk-show circuit. Meloy himself has written a book. And on top of all that, he’s a proud husband and father.
Or, in short, he’s just like you and all your friends, only he’s ridiculously, annoyingly successful — and he is unabashedly proud of himself, just as, admit it, you would be. He runs around his carefully, elaborately designed stages, with half-choreographed movements, leading the crowd in energetic and impassioned yet playful singalongs. He’s a young Wes Anderson of sorts, crafting tiny, possibly meaningless things all around him, just because he can — using an ever-growing budget to incorporate weirder and more freakishly detailed minutiae by the day. He’s created his own world, where his every whim is carried out without question, and that world continues to grow in size, despite his chosen subject matter veering so far from the middle of the road. This is a band that’s made a career out of Civil War reenactments set to indie rock, out of Japanese folk tales, pirates and Chinese trapeze artists. He uses dense, archaic language, and his message is rarely clear. It’s not easy to blame him for being more than a little bit pleased with himself, for having achieved anything at all with such seemingly hokey shit.
In a review of a November, 2006 show at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Village Voice music critic Chris Ott got on Meloy for what he perceived as false humility when he said something about pretending the band was playing the much smaller Mercury Lounge, arguing that Meloy has been courting such large-scale success his whole life, and I don’t think he’s wrong. But I also don’t subscribe to the distinctly 90s idea that being successful is bad, so, really, no harm done. Ott also takes issue with the subject matter of his material: “He believes he is a gifted and entitled writer,” he says, “fit to tackle and retranslate whatever mythologies interest him. On The Crane Wife — largely inspired by a Japanese misogyny fable — Meloy stages an incongruous Tinkertoy lullaby about the Shankill Butchers, a handful of murderous Ulster sociopaths from the darkest days of the Troubles.”And this is where I really have to stick up for Meloy. If it is deemed unacceptable for a musician to go back in time, taking foreign, unfamiliar stories and sharing them with a new generation, in hopes maybe of keeping certain traditions alive, or of trying to show that basic human emotions and struggles have been largely the same for centuries, or at least that they can still be meaningful centuries later, then where, exactly, do we expect them to turn? Because as Jonny Diamond contends back on page 16, in his review of All the Sad, Young Literary Men, the new novel from N+1 founder Keith Gessen, the opinion (which Gessen seems to hold) that people who are exactly like you and your friends make for the most appealing subjects is also terribly flawed. It’s among the most common gripes with modern American indie rock, too: its tendency toward constant self-reflection, its steadfast notion that the feelings and daily struggles of its authors are interesting enough to warrant countless retellings, and it’s noteworthy that Meloy has managed to avoid this pitfall completely — at least in his songs.
As he shows, as plain as day, on his new solo record, Colin Meloy Sings Live! (out now on Kill Rock Stars), he does battle similar tendencies, only he relegates them nicely to his between-song banter. He gives a lengthy introduction to a song called ‘Dracula’s Daughter’, which he describes, verbosely, as the worst song he’s ever written. It’s funny, of course, but that he’s convinced himself and his fans that even his failures are worthy of consumption is troubling, proof that somewhere deep down, he believes that everything about him is inherently interesting, by sheer virtue of the fact that it’s about him. One could even argue that at this relatively early stage in his career, the simple act of releasing a live solo album is pretentious, but to go back to the pride thing for a minute, you get the feeling that he’s just happy as fuck to be where he is, and that he’s simply trying to get away with everything he possibly can while he still has the chance, and although it leads to the occasional misstep, it’s an urge that, in the great tradition of coy, shoulder-shrugging indie rock, is actually very likable.
Especially — especially — since, where it counts, in his art, which is to say not in his stage show or his interview persona or his constant stage banter, but in his songs, he leaves himself completely out of it, which is far more than much of the rest of his generation can say for themselves.