Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Indie Music Murders

What is it about well-read American indie bands and songs about brutal acts of violence?

That's right, it's a blog about The Decemberists!

Oregon's most successful sea shanty merchants are kind of notorious for the dark, gory narratives that singer Colin Meloy writes to accompany all those hot accordion riffs. However, I'm not just picking on The Decemberists today; since I've been listening to Black Sheep Boy and Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See almost constantly over the last week or two, I'd also like to include Okkervil River in this discussion.

Okkervil River and The Decemberists have a lot in common. Both bands are fronted by bespectacled nerds with a fondness for long words and arcane literary references. Both bands seem to enjoy chucking a mandolin into the mix from time to time. And, yes, both The Decemberists and Okkervil River have been known to sing about people getting raped, beaten, and/or murdered for no particular reason.

Here are some choice excerpts from both acts' songbooks:

"We went out one night...out with these two girls Colin knew from Kenwood Christian.
One was named Laurie; that's what the story said next week in the Guardian.
When I killed her, it was so easy that I wanted to kill her again."

(from Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See by Okkervil River)

"And when they find you, Odalisque, they will rend you terribly,
Stitch from stitch, 'til all your linen limbs will fall."

(from Castaways and Cutouts by The Decemberists)

"So they found a lieutenant who killed a village of kids.
After finishing off the wives, he wiped off his knife, and that's what he did."

The War Criminal Rises and Speaks
(from Down the River of Golden Dreams by Okkervil River)

"As I was rambled down by the water, I spied in sable the landlord's daughter.
Produced my pistol, then my sabre, and said, 'Make no whistle, or thou'll be murdered!'
She cursed, she shivered, she cried for mercy: 'My gold and silver, if thou'll release me!'
'I'll take no gold, miss; I'll take no silver. I'll take those sweet lips, and thou'll deliver!'"

The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drowning
(from The Crane Wife by The Decemberists)

"They'll tie us down with those fine, thin threads
And run their knives up and down our skin
'Til what was in will be out again."

For the Enemy
(from Down the River of Golden Dreams by Okkervil River)

"Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole and break his fingers to splinters,
Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked, clawing at the ceiling of his grave."

The Mariner's Revenge Song
(from Picaresque by The Decemberists)

You know what I realised as I was choosing those examples? The Decemberists trot out the Tarantino stuff far more often than Okkervil River. Where the former troupe have an embarrassment of nasty, red-spattered riches to choose from, I struggled to find even three decent examples of violent lyrical content in the latter's repertoire; it appears that Will Sheff outgrew the 'bloody and gruesome = good' mindset long before Colin Meloy did.

In fact, I'm not sure Meloy ever did stop getting a semi from killing his characters. Here are a few lines from Easy Come, Easy Go, the eleventh track on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World:

"He was a stand-up gent, but no-one knew his bent,
And all the little bones that he hid in his vent,
She was the come-on queen (*wolf whistle*), jewel on the scene,
They found her in the shower; she'd been gone for seven weeks."

That song's parent album was released less than a year ago, and it's yet another addition to The Decemberists' extensive catalogue of songs where someone gets murdered.

I wouldn't mind, but most of Meloy's victims aren't even dispatched for any particular reason. The murders and assaults that populate his band's back catalogue tend to only ever serve two (not especially worthy) purposes:
  • Shock value. When the narrator of The Rake's Song tells us about how he poisoned, drowned, and burned his children, we're shocked. When we hear about the ravishing endured nightly by the mother in A Cautionary Song, we're shocked. For whatever reason, shock is a reaction that The Decemberists go for fairly often.

  • Gritty 'traditionalism'. Folk music (specifically British and American folk music) is a huge influence on the songs of The Decemberists, and as Colin Meloy himself once pointed out, "a lot of scary misogyny was present in a lot of early folk songs". But, as this excellent article points out, writing new murder ballads in that same violent and scarily misogynistic vein doesn't really achieve anything; Decemberists songs rarely have anything much to say about the atrocities they host. They're just sort of there, 'cuz that's how the songwriters of yore did it.
Okkervil River, in my opinion, are comparatively shrewd with their depictions of brutality. Will Sheff's songs are far more sparing with the bloodshed, and when he does sing about murder, he does it for a reason. Both Westfall and The War Criminal Rises and Speaks have genuine lessons to impart: Westfall reminds us that those capable of evil aren't always easy to spot ("evil don't look like anything"), while The War Criminal goes one step further, using pointed sarcasm to suggest that anyone is potentially capable of the unspeakable acts committed by the song's title character.

Look. In spite of what my above criticisms may suggest, I love The Decemberists, and their blood 'n' guts approach can sometimes be absolutely thrilling. The Mariner's Revenge Song, for example, is genuinely gripping the first time you hear it, and fabulously, schlockily enjoyable for each listen thereafter:

But The Decemberists have always been about putting on a show. Meloy loves playing pretend, donning the costumes of characters from various periods of reality and fiction and going about everything in a decidedly theatrical manner. And that's splendid. But then you discover Okkervil River, and Will Sheff's offering actual insight (not to mention a less detached, more emotive approach to singing in character), and you realise that The Decemberists just got leapfrogged in your 'all-time best bands' list.

You feel kind of sad, but that's how people always feel when they realise they've grown up.

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