Villainy! Murder! Melody!: The 17 Grimmest Tales from the Decemberists Catalog
We both go down together.
While the songs of Colin Meloy and his Decemberists are epic, visual, and frequently gorgeous in nature, they also tend to be some of the bleakest and most gruesome tales that your ears have ever heard.
Across the Portland band’s catalog, songwriter Meloy has employed the imagery of the 19th-century penny dreadfuls (Castaways & Cutouts), turn-of-the-century war-time dramas (Her Majesty), the many adventures of roguish cads (Picaresque), Japanese folk tales (The Crane Wife), a seventeen-song conceptual rock opera (The Hazards of Love), American folk traditions (The King Is Dead), and, for their newest, the celebrations and struggles of everyday life (What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World).
(It’s happy news to report that since the ambitious storytelling of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have steered the ship to more familiar [and familial] waters, with most of their wickedest tales towards the front end of their discography.)
Below, a celebration of the most downtrodden and dark from The Decemberists.
“Leslie Anne Levine” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
The ghost of a fifteen-year-old girl laments her life—her mother dies in childbirth, she has one love (a chimney sweep who dies lodged in a flue)—from a ditch that serves as her grave
Refrain of note: “The only love I’ve known’s a chimney sweep / Lost and lodged inside a flue / Back in 1842”
Get out your dictionary: wastrel, mesallied, parapet
“A Cautionary Song,” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
A woman resorts to secret prostitution for the satisfaction of some violent, threatening sailors in order to feed her family.
Refrain of note: “And they tell her not to say a thing to cousin, kindred, kith, or king / Or she’ll end up dead / And they throw her thirty dollars and return her to the harbor / Where she goes to bed, and this is how you’re fed”
Get out your dictionary: racket, maidenhead, gunwhales, pinioned, minions, kith
“Odalisque,” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
A group hunts down a court concubine, an odalisque, planning to rape and kill her.
Refrain of note: “And when they find you odalisque / They will rend you terribly / Stitch from stitch til all / Your linen and limbs will fall”
Get out your dictionary: odalisque, kit bag, britches
“The Legionnaire’s Lament,” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)
A fatally wounded soldier in a foreign war looks back to his life with his wife and child in Paris.
Refrain of note: “Medicating in the sun / Pinched doses of laudanum / Longing for the old fecundity of my homeland”
Get out your dictionary: legionnaire, joie de vivre, bagatelles, laudanum, fecundity, charabanc
“Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” from Her Majesty (2003)
Los Angeles, a city by the sea, is a really, really, awful place.
Refrain of note: “How I abhor this place / Its sweet and bitter taste / Has left me wretched, retching on all fours / Los Angeles, I’m yours”
Get out your dictionary: oligarchs, plaintive, truncated, sallow, elan, languor, divans, dalliant, dolor, iniquity
“The Chimbley Sweep,” from Her Majesty (2003)
The life and times of a poor chimney sweep boy.
Refrain of note: “I am an orphan, an orphan boy / I’ve known no love, I’ve seen no love / A dirty doorstep my cradle laid”
Get out your dictionary: urchin
“We Both Go Down Together,” from Picaresque (2005)
The sweet, sweet tale of young love—complete with abuse of power and probable rape in a clearing—that ends either in a double-suicide or a murder-suicide (it’s up in the air).
Refrain of note: “And while the seagulls are crying / We fall but our souls are flying”
Get out your dictionary: wanton, tramp, veranda
“Eli The Barrow Boy,” from Picaresque (2005)
A young boy works hard, wishing he could have bought something nice for his dead love, then commits suicide.
Refrain of note: “Eli, the barrow boy, when they found him / Dressed all in courderoy, he had drowned in / The river down the way”
Get out your dictionary: tamaracks
“The Sporting Life,” from Picaresque (2005)
An athlete gets humiliated on and off the field during a match in front of his embarrassed father, disappointed coach, and girlfriend—the latter of whom who leaves him for the captain of the opposing team.
Refrain of note: “But while I am lying here / Trying to fight the tears / I’ll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger / Thought I think I might lie here a little longer”
Get out your dictionary: errant, knitted
“Mariner’s Revenger Song,” from Picaresque (2005)
Two sailors, the sole survivors of a shipwreck, are now in the belly of a whale. The younger of the two confesses that he’s been on a murderous, fifteen-year search for the older, a rake who had some years previous left the younger sailor’s mother broke, diseased, and dying.
Refrain of note: “It gives my eye great joy / To se your eyes fill with fear / To lean in close / And I will whisper / The last words you’ll hear”
Get out your dictionary: roustabout, debonair, consumptive, arrears, urchins, priory, vestry, penitent, wanton
“The Island,” from The Crane Wife (2006)
The second and third sections of the song (“The Landlord’s Daughter” and “You’ll Not Feel The Drowning”) detail rape and murder by drowning, respectively
Refrain of note: “Forget you once had sweethearts / They’ve forgotten you / Think you not on parents / They’ve forgotten you, too”
Get out your dictionary: sable, belfry
“Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then,” from The Crane Wife (2006)
A duet between two lovers separated by war, the soldier laments he’ll be home at last when his love buries him there.
Refrain of note: “But when the sun breaks / To no more bulletin battle-cry / Then will you make a grave / For I will be home then”
Get out your dictionary: bough, weevils, Oconee, Manassas, bile
“O Valencia!” from The Crane Wife (2006)
Two star-crossed lovers, once found out by disapproving family, attempt to run away together before the woman accidentally gets killed by her brother. Her lover swears his revenge.
Refrain of note: “My O Valencia / With your blood still warm on the ground / Valencia / I’ll burn this whole city down”
Get out your dictionary: none needed!
“The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” from The Crane Wife (2006)
The album’s concept and title track, taken from a Japanese fable, tells the story of a poor man who takes in an injured crane, which turns into a woman. They fall in love and marry, she weaves to support them, but forbids her husband from witnessing her do her work. As she works more and more to support the man’s newfound greed, he spies her working—as a crane using her own feathers to make the clothing.
Refrain of note: “Sound the keening bell / To see it’s painted red / Soft as fontanel / The feathers in the thread”
Get out your dictionary: keening bell, fontanel
“The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone),” from The Hazards of Love (2009)
A young girl realizes she and her sisters have been poisoned and burned by their father, and she returns to haunt him.
Refrain of note: “Father, I’m not feeling well / The flowers you fed / Tasted spoiled, for suddenly / I find that I am dead”
Get out your dictionary: hazards
“The Rake’s Song,” from The Hazards of Love (2009)
Three words: infanticide murder ballad.
Refrain of note: “Charlotte, I buried after feeding her foxglove / Dawn was easy, she was drowned in the bath / Isaiah fought, but was easily bested / Burned his body for incurring my wrath”
Get out your dictionary: rake, whetted, divest, foxglove
“The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” from The Hazards of Love (2009)
The lovers from the operatic concept of the album are reunited in the finale, make their vows, and decide to drown themselves.
Refrain of note: “With this long last rush of air we speak our vows and sorry whispers / When the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her”
Get out your dictionary: none needed!