Ahmed Ragheb finds a new appreciation for the music of The Decemberists after a year of historic upsets and tragedy.
“I read in the paper today,” sings a tender and tired voice over the ominous plucking of a banjo, “it’s been a record year for rainfall.” I know the feeling – we all do. An impeachment, a global pandemic, economic collapse, fires, floods and an increasingly panic-inducing presidential election; a record year for rainfall indeed. It has felt, at times, apocalyptic on a biblical scale and the dread is starting to set in. Let me just state for the record that I’m not an alarmist, I’m not a pessimist and I’m not cynical in nature. I’m an “I’m sure it’s not gonna be that bad” kinda guy; I was the “Don’t worry, we have a strong system of checks and balances” guy in the room back in 2016. Well, I’m not saying any of that anymore. A nasty combination of national and personal tragedies has withered my optimism down to its final vine and, looking towards the coming winter, there may be nothing left of it by spring. “The end is nigh” has gone from the crudely painted sandwich board to the back of my mind in the form of a quiet resignation in record time. Is the end truly nigh? I don’t know – maybe not, hopefully not, probably not, but one thing is for certain: 2020 has got me thinking about the end times for the first time in my short life.
Colin Meloy, the principal songwriter and lead singer of The Decemberists, is no stranger to the apocalypse. With a voice half borrowed from REM’s Michael Stipe and half from some 18th century balladeer, Meloy has been painting apocalyptic landscapes in his lyrics and music since 2000; as such, it’s quite easy to make the case for Meloy as the herald of dark times to come. His songs include dreadfully apocalyptic imagery, albeit cast against upbeat, quirky and fun instrumentation. “You and me and the war at the end times/And I believe/California succumbed to the fault line/We heaved relief/As scores of innocents died,” he sings on “Calamity Song.” On The Decemberists latest album, Severed, as real-world threats become increasingly concrete and numerous so do the number of apocalypse-themed tracks. However, the humor hasn’t yet been beaten out, it seems, with songs such as “We All Die Young” and “Everything is Awful.”
Beyond the more obvious references and allusions to the environmental catastrophes and post-civilization wars that seem a dime a dozen in Meloy’s lyrics there lies something a little less tangible but a little more doom-laden. In almost every song, whether it’s a tender ballad about young love or a rollicking historical narrative (for which The Decemberists have come to be best known), there exists a sort of existential dread and foreboding that lurks beneath the surface. Proving this point becomes rather tricky as it’s hard to point to evidence for what amounts simply to a “feeling” that I can’t shake while listening to their music – trying to find the words feels a little like trying to bottle a wisp of smoke. In “O New England,” for instance, the narrator recalls a failed trip to New York City with a lover, trying and ultimately failing to rekindle what they once had (“This here is the fable of a failed attempt/to find new love in the seat of its origin”). There is a quality to this song, and others on the EP Always the Bridesmaid, that feel, despite the jingling energy with which they’re played, in line with the feeling I am trying to get at with this article, the dark pit at the heart of The Decemberists’ discography. What makes the apocalypse (specifically an Abrahamic apocalypse but others that involve some form of prophecy more generally) so horribly arresting is its inevitability despite our knowledge and supposed precognition of it. It’s that exact feeling that slips through to us between notes and lines of dialogue and narration in their music. Just about every character on Always the Bridesmaid seems to be battling, wittingly or unwittingly, against the fate laid out before them. There’s the middle-aged woman pushing up against the determined march of time (“Those were the days of Elaine/That was the phrase that she used to describe to her son/Of the fun she had had/Long before he went away/Long before days of the dole and the draze and the lull”), the young woman on the way to middle-age that seems fated for loneliness and misfortune (“And the raincoat that you wore/When it rained today/I think it only made it rain more”), the fictionalized lover of the infamous Valarie Plame finding himself in the crosshairs of something far larger than himself and our New York tourist hoping to recapture that wisp of smoke already long faded into the past. The song from which this article steals its title perfectly amplifies all of this and brings it eerily close to those Americans who feel they are living a Greek tragedy:
What’s the use of all of this?
It’s to remember you in the entire ’cause I’m watching it slip away
And in the annals of the Empire
Did it look this gray, does it look so gray?
Does it always look so gray before the fall, before the fall?
This same sentiment is only amplified in Meloy’s favorite narrative subjects: grotesque historical fables. Inevitability and fate are never felt more than in the tragic telling of a tragic figure trapped in the past. Whether it’s the 19th-century Boston mother selling her body to drooling sailors in “A Cautionary Tale,” the French legionnaire dreaming of Paris while he dies in some desert a world away in “The Legionnaire’s Lament,” the American federal employee tricked by a female Soviet spy into betraying his country in “The Bagman’s Gambit,” or the Ottoman bride-to-be tangled up in a tragic and fatal romance, hoping against hope while her lover lies at the bottom of the Bosphorus in “Constantinople,” we can’t help but listen on in sorrow as a proleptic narrative plays out; suspense is somehow sucked out of a story that is doomed to the annals of history. Will our Ottoman bride wriggle free from her arranged marriage to reunite with her lover? Will our Boston mother find another, less horrifying way to feed her children? Will our federal worker make it out unscathed? Will our legionnaire ever again see the “old fecundity of [his] homeland?” No. None of this will happen and we know, within the first two notes of each of these songs, that the protagonist is bound to fail, doomed to give in under the tremendous weight of history.
This isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom; on the contrary, the treacherous world of The Decemberists’ music often provides the listener with a vision of learning to live through hell or with nothing, songs about those whose worlds have already ended and manage to go on. On “Clementine” Meloy sings ever so delicately to the song’s subject: “You slept in your overalls/After the wrecking ball/Bereft you of house and home/And left you with sweet fuck-all.” He paints a heavy scene with a light hand, going on to sing, “And we’ll find us a home/Built of packaging foam/That will be there ’til after we die.” It’s a saccharine sentiment but one that is delivered with such sincerity that it stops us in our tracks especially when buried in a discography of sorrow and misery. On “After the Bombs,” we are also treated to a much needed dash of optimism (well, relative optimism). “And after the rockets calm/And the glimmer of fire/Pretends an early dawn/We pinch at our skin/While we wonder how we/Escaped harm/...Then we’ll go dancing/Won’t we go dancing/Yes we’ll go dancing/’til it all starts over again.” The song then descends into an opulent church organ solo that reminds us that what we’re listening to, that optimism that we’re reaching out for, is nothing more than a prayer.
After the events of this year, it’s no wonder that I’ve been listening to The Decemberists more now than at any time since I was in college. It’s been therapeutic in some ways, terrifying in others, and it’s certainly unlocked an entirely new appreciation for Colin Meloy and his writing. But in all of this I’ve realized that it’s not Meloy that I find myself identifying with these days but his characters. Those characters that he has so cruelly stripped of agency and sentenced to the terrors of an imaginative mind. But nevertheless he provides simple relief by comforting them and us with his song; he hears us and sympathizes. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!