The Decemberists: A New Spring
Driving to Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy’s house is something of a scenic adventure. First, pass St. Johns Bridge, the most beautiful bridge in Portland, Ore.—a city full of bridges. You climb up a damp, narrow road lined with country-style homes and cars parked precariously near slopes full of rocks, thick vines and old leaning trees. There’s even a big, weather wooden boat next to a driveway, as if it had been ejected—crippled and creaky—from the nearby Willamette River. There is a sign with an old-fashioned painting of Santa Claus propped on top of it. It’s the middle of January and the image of the man in the red suit seems more comical than festive.
I’m listening to the new Decemberists album, The King Is Dead, as I figure out the confusing directions that I printed from Mapquest. I’m playing the record (yet) again with the hope that a few more questions about the songs might magically come to mind. But, then, something else oddly magical happens. I’m driving up Springville Hill when the song, “June Hymn,” comes on. It’s a song about birds, bonnets and ivy—things coming back to life. There’s a shiny acoustic strum and a soft harmonica flutter. Jenny Conlee’s electric piano and accordion are underneath those sounds, warming up the whole thing like a trusty hotplate. Even though it’s a cold morning outside, the sun heats me through the windshield as Meloy sings, “You were waking/And day was breaking/A panoply of song/And summer comes to Springville Hill.”
It almost seems too true to life for Meloy, a songwriter who says, “I’ve never been good at writing about myself.” Whether he’s being modest or not, it’s true that The Decemberists are known more for fantastical tunes about espionage, pirates and ancient folklore. Besides lofty, sometimes difficult, subject matter, the band has also been known to master pure pop melancholy, such as one of my longtime favorites, “The Apology Song” (off of 2003’s self-released 5 Songs EP), which is about a stolen bicycle.
The King Is Dead is a fresh new turn in The Decemberists saga. It’s a stripped down set of songs steeped in an Americana style. There’s still a sweeping, big sky vastness to some of the songs (Meloy is from Montana after all), but the sometimes hushed instrumentation gives this collection an intimate feel that you don’t hear on other Decemberists albums.
Before I visited Meloy at his family’s home, I talked with Conlee, who plays accordion, piano and organ for the band. I asked her what her favorite songs on the new album were. Besides “Rox in the Box” (because “it’s a reggae Celtic song and that’s totally weird”), she points out “Rise to Me.” “The song is so personal to Colin and it’s rare for him to write in the first person. I really loved listening to him sing that.”
When I ask Meloy about the song, it almost seems too private. “‘Rise to Me’ resonates with people we know because they know the story behind it, which is about our five-year-old son, Hank, who was diagnosed with autism two years ago,” he explains carefully. “If you were to listen to it, it just sounds like a father son chat about being strong in the face of diversity, but it’s more about our family coming to terms and figuring out what that diagnosis means and how we can deal with it and be strong and move forward. It’s about the inevitability of things.”
Still, the 36-year-old Meloy sees the bright side of his son’s condition. “I don’t think of it as a tragedy,” he says. “I think of it as more of a jog in the road. He’s on the very high functioning end of the spectrum. He taught himself how to read when he was two and a half and now reads like an adult. He reads non-fiction, like encyclopedias.”
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