The Decemberists Barrow Boys and Engine Drivers 

Kill Rock Stars
Picaresque
March 22

Another lot of great artists seems to have achieved greatness by dealing honestly with our regular day-to-day lives, touching on the small, daily struggles and victories that would seem insignificant to most. By presenting us with things that are, for better or worse, familiar, they play into our basic need to be understood, and, well, we like that.

At this point in his young, almost freakishly promising career, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy still falls squarely into that first, otherworldly category. But with the release of Picaresque, he shows signs of leaning ever so slightly in the other direction — just not in the way you might expect.

The band’s carnival-like folk-pop songs are still overflowing with the odd characters we’ve come to expect from Meloy. Take, for instance, Eli from ‘Eli the Barrow Boy’, who sold wares out of a wheelbarrow and longed so deeply for his dead lover that he kills himself. There are engine drivers, military wives, a "bagman" and all sorts of people whose stories are begging to be deciphered.

Those are not exactly the kind of everyday topics I alluded to, but what makes the Decemberists’ songs sound so familiar, comfortable and exciting — and what makes you want to know more about these characters — are the melodies that so ruthlessly fight their way into your head. Some are upbeat and fun, while others chug along, slowly demanding your attention. Ultimately, they are all memorable, and that’s why Meloy and Picaresque are so successful: they drag you to a strange, complicated place,you’ll want to brag to your smarty-pant friends about. Things is, they get you there by preying on your childlike love of sing-alongs.


Many of history’s greatest artists have seemed to function in a world that bears almost no resemblance to the one the rest of us stumble aimlessly around day in and day out. Maybe it’s just pure creativity that gets them there, or — more likely — perhaps there’s a hyperactive imagination at work, fueling them in an intense pursuit of an escape from a world they may think gave them the short end of the stick.

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