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The Decemberists weave historical specters into beautifully engaging folkpop.

Colin Meloy (center) writes about gruesome things, but - he's humming a Sondheim tune.
  • Colin Meloy (center) writes about gruesome things, but he's humming a Sondheim tune.

Colin Meloy was not a normal boy. He loved books more than just about anything -- Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Piers Anthony -- and had a rather unsettling fascination with ax murderers. At the age of 7, he wrote, directed, and starred in his own play, The Bloody Knight, which he describes as "basically a half-hour bloodbath set in the Middle Ages." In junior high, he preferred the Replacements to Metallica -- and preferred everything to the reality of life in Helena, Montana. He found comfort in history, cloaked himself in fantasy. And with his band the Decemberists' two CDs, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists, Meloy has given life to one of folkpop's more unusual shadow plays.

The ragtag cast includes an orphaned chimney sweep and infantrymen who find life in death's whisper. There is a masturbating teen spying on his neighbor, and a dead infant quaking in her grave. The mostly acoustic songs are hummable and lush with harmony, but they are haunted, blood-spattered things -- poetic and strange, sophisticated yet bawdy. It's not all such Dickensian stuff. There are love songs too. And nonsense bits, like "Song for Myla Goldberg," in which Meloy spikes his verse with silliness and Latin conjugations. But throughout the albums, characters rise from the grave and speak across generations. They offer tales of violence and fear, heartache and longing. Their settings are of another era; their messages are timeless.

"I'm a bit of a recluse and a homebody by nature," says Meloy, on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon. "A lot of it is me living vicariously through these characters. It's fun to write with them, because they have more adventures than I have." Take the hero of "Chimbley Sweep," who steals comfort from lonely wives when husbands aren't looking. "I think of a chimney sweep as being a character that's lost to the world," Meloy says. "Granted, there are still chimney sweeps, but the idea of a poor and orphaned chimney sweep in the 19th century is just amazing. It's like he's the house painter or the milkman or this anachronistic character who symbolizes a weird sexual temptation. This man who shows up in the middle of the day -- or the night, as the case may be."

Although Meloy has written songs and played guitar since he was 14, he never intended to be a musician. "I told everyone I was going to be a writer when I grew up." At the University of Montana, he earned a degree in creative writing, but grew disillusioned by his professors' insistence on short sentences and concrete imagery. "I was just getting to a point where that stoic-realist writing style wasn't really appealing to me. In music, there were no boundaries."

Instead, Meloy folded his wild-eyed literary leanings into music. He is one of pop music's most bookish lyricists, creating songs brimming with allusions and fantastic narrative. "All through high school and college, a lot of what I wrote was about girls and breakups and romantic highs and lows," he says. "I think I just wrote it out of me. Those elements are in the songs, but I just took a different tack. If it is going to be a love song -- and I think romantic songs have an important place -- I just try a different take on it."

Consider "Red Right Ankle," a pretty little love song about his girlfriend, Carson (who, incidentally, did the artwork for both albums). "This is the story of your red right ankle/And how it came to meet your leg/And how the muscle, bone, and sinews tangle/And how the skin was softly shed." It's a song about the pain and beauty of a union, softly strummed on the guitar, but it's oblique, even gruesome. Why is the ankle red? Is it bloody? A birthmark? (Carson, as it turns out, has red freckles on her ankles; sometimes art is best left unexplained.)

Colin Meloy wears his weirdness like a hipster's tattoo. Like the instruments he chooses -- theremin, accordion, glockenspiel, and Dobro. Or his sometimes elevated language ("Let your legs loll on the lino/'Til your sinews spoil"). Or his voice -- a nasal tenor that has been likened to those of both a weathered Englishman and Arnold Horshack of Welcome Back, Kotter. In fact, Meloy is so weird that the only comparison critics seem to agree upon is to another pop music anomaly, Jeff Mangum. In 1998, working under the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum released the singular In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and garnered almost unanimous critical praise, only to disappear entirely. The Decemberists share an undeniable sensibility, but the comparison has dogged the band as well.

"The first review mentioned [Neutral Milk Hotel], and it sort of spread like wildfire from there," Meloy says. "I also think some people really wanted somebody to come up and take Neutral Milk Hotel's place, because there's been an absence there. It's definitely been an influence, but I think what we do is pretty different. Our writing styles may have some of the same elements in them, but I'm borrowing as much from Robyn Hitchcock and the Pogues."

While Neutral Milk Hotel slathers lyrics in metaphor and alternate realities -- tales of two-headed boys and the king of carrot flowers -- Meloy's work simply harks back a century or two. He sings of dungarees and petticoats, Legionnaires and revolutionaries. They are theatrical songs, with a dash of the slap-happy show tune. "I'm a huge Sondheim fan. Closeted," admits Meloy. "Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals. I grew up involved with community theater, and as far as storytelling goes, musical theater is where that is done and done well."

Meloy studied acting at the University of Oregon before transferring to Montana. He is, in short, a theater geek -- witness the dramatic flourishes of "Shanty for the Arethusa" (featuring, among other things, creaky floorboards and drum rolls) or "Song for Myla Goldberg," in which Meloy uses the stage warm-up tongue twister "I know I need unique New York." The band has been known to play dress-up for photo shoots, clowning around as gypsies or soldiers. In the epic, seven-minute "I Was Meant for the Stage," Meloy sings of the poor sap who can't forfeit the spotlight: "I was meant for applause/ I was meant for derision/ Nothing short of faded self has affected my decision."

"That song is totally about me," Meloy says. "I adore playing live." He doesn't, however, always love being on the road. "I have sort of a love-hate relationship with touring. I always feel like it's basically 22-1/2 hours of grueling tedium and an hour and a half of excitement." Until the band returns, fans will have to be content with an EP out on Acuarela, The Tain, an 18-1/2-minute song based on an Irish myth which, weirdly enough, Meloy says, "has kind of a '70s-metal Sabbath theme to it." And Meloy will have to be content with the traveling life. Finally, his world will resemble that of the bedraggled nomads he champions -- all grubby fingernails and glory. "It's true," he says. "When you're on tour, you feel like a total vagabond."

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