People have come up with a lot of interesting ways to describe the Decemberists.
"The Decemberists treat high-concept nerd-dom like their one true calling." —Rolling Stone
"If [Neutral Milk Hotel songwriter] Jeff Mangum had never been born, [Decembersits songwriter] Colin Meloy could have assumed Jeff Mangum's current status as indie rock's consummate pop songwriter freak." —Pitchfork
"Led by Montana native Colin Meloy, the Decemberists craft theatrical, hyper-literate pop songs that draw heavily from late-'60s British folk acts like Fairport Convention and Pentangle and the early-'80s college rock grandeur of the Waterboys and R.E.M." —All Music
"We get described often as a 'literate rock band.' Which I guess is better than being called an illiterate rock band, because in fact we can all read. But yeah, I'll take that. That's fine. It's English-major rock. I'll wear that on my sleeve." —Colin Meloy, A.V. Club Interview
Whether the Portland-based group is made up of nerds, freaks, or English majors, it definitely isn't a run-of-the-mill pop band.
Colin Meloy founded the Decemberists, and still writes most of their songs. Don't be fooled by the grandiose and intricate storylines in his songs, though: he grew up with a relatively normal-sounding life. Meloy was born in Montana, and lived there until he left to attend the University of Oregon. Finding that he missed his home state too much, Meloy left U.O. and enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula for his last two years of college, where in 1998, he earned (you guessed it) a creative writing degree.
He spent some time playing with his first band, Tarkio, in Montana and the Northwest, and then he decided to move to the growing indie-Mecca of Portland, Oregon, to see if he could get a bigger audience. At first, the plan didn't go too well, and Meloy was only able to play open mic nights as an acoustic singer/songwriter.
Meloy eventually formed a new band, starting with bassist Nate Query, and soon adding accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee and lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. The band's first drummer was Ezra Holbrook and is now John Moen. The group looked to 19th-century Russian history to find its name (you know, as most emerging rock bands do). They settled on the Decemberists, after a group of revolutionaries who rose up against the tyranny of Tsar Nicholas I and lost. (Be careful not to get them mixed up, though—the Russian group is spelled "Decembrists," without the extra "e.")
Even once Meloy was able to fill out his songwriting with a fuller sound, the band played to relatively empty bars and clubs. But without this time of seeming failure, the group's signature sound may not have been discovered, and songs like "O Valencia!" may never have been written.
In "The Making of Meloy" on the University of Montana's website, Meloy describes those first shows' effect on his songwriting, saying, "When I was in that position, with nobody to appeal to or scare away, I thought, 'I might as well do whatever I want to do.' And that created a new thing."
This "new thing" turned out well for the fledgling band. They released their first EP, the six-song Five Songs in 2002.
The EP, ranging from the pedal-steel-laden "Shiny" to the unrhymed, intricate storytelling of "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" to the upbeat, narrative pop of "Apology Song," established the Decemberists as a band with high-brow lyrics and great command of a bunch of different musical styles. The EP was well received, as was the full-length album, Castaways and Cutouts, that followed.
The band even impressed the people at Kill Rock Stars, an indie record label that has represented artists such as Elliott Smith and Sleater-Kinney. Kill Rock Stars soon re-released Castaways and Cutouts. The Decemberists stayed with that label through two more albums, both of which were built around the unique songwriting that had made Five Songs such a success. Each album did better than the one before it, and, finally, the band was just too big for the small label to handle.
The Decemberists found a new home at Capitol Records. Before you cry "sellouts" like many fans did, we'll be happy to inform you that the band managed to follow in the footsteps of other groups that managed to keep flourishing at bigger labels. As with Modest Mouse's first major label album, The Moon and Antarctica, and Elliott Smith's XO, the Decemberists' The Crane Wife took advantage of major-label funding only to expand the band's sonic range and experiment with structures and studio tricks they weren't able to play around with under the constraints of time and funds that came with indie-label productions.
Meloy spoke to the bigger label switch in an interview, saying, "The musicianship on this record is more impressive, from my standpoint, and I think that happened because, yeah, we had a bigger budget, so we were able to take our time building the songs, and also to scrap and rebuild them if we needed to." (Source)
The end result of the partnership with Capitol was an album that includes two tracks that come in at 11+ minutes, as well as a three-part song cycle that retells an ancient Chinese folk tale. Basically, the Decemberists had stuck to their guns, and created their most ambitious album up to that time.
As guitarist Chris Funk told Dead Journalist about his band's work with a major label, "At the end of the day it really doesn't affect a band like us." (Source)
Along with the longer, experimental songs, The Crane Wife also features the kind of three- or four-minute pop gems that have always populated the Decemberists' albums. This is where "O Valencia!", the first single released off the album, fits in. Opening with a simple guitar hook and driving drums that pave the way for a melody catchy as all-get-out, "O Valencia" gives you a fun, bouncy ride through a rather dark story.
"And that story is?" you ask. Luckily, Meloy" gave us a very clear answer:
Well, I guess it's basically your traditional, star-crossed lover theme about a guy and a girl who belong to two warring gangs or families and who are in love and are trying to kind of escape together. Though it ends badly. The brother of the girl, who has kind of a vendetta against the protagonist, goes after him with a gun, the girl runs into his arms to try to save him and the bullet that's intended for the guy, the hero, in fact kills the girl. And the song ends with them kind of lying on the pavement, him holding her in his arms. (Source)
Tragic storylines are peppered throughout the Decemberists' repertoire. Take Castaways and Cutouts' mourning ghost baby in "Leslie Anne Levine," the brutal fate of the bride in Her Majesty's "The Bachelor and the Bride," and the unfortunate outcome of the love between a spy and government official in Picaresque's "The Bagman's Gambit."
Though the eloquent lyrics and stories in "O Valencia!" and other songs like it are not conventional pop song material, the Decemberists are able to get away with it. That's because, as Spin puts it, "Meloy can write the hell out of a melody, and he's got a flair for making what might seem heady and ridiculous on paper into something that sounds relatable and touching." (Source) Essentially, anything that's presented in an engaging way becomes something people want to hear.
Though the album after The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love, moved away from the stand-alone pop song, the Decemberists' latest effort, The King Is Dead, sees the band in its most basic form yet, featuring stripped-down folk-ish songs with—compared to other recent albums—minimalist musical arrangements.
"O Valencia!" straddles both these worlds. It's got a clear narrative that has been told in a different form by the likes of Shakespeare, but it's also a pretty basic rock song that doesn't even reach four minutes. The Decemberists in a nutshell? We think so.