The Decemberists are an indie folk rock band from Portland, Ore., encompassing every stereotype that overly broad genre from that hipster-ridden town can touch. Over the course of the group’s nearly two decade-long career, they’ve produced quirky songs in an expanse of topics that range from the sentimental to the mundane to the terribly morbid. But this musical and thematic expanse has earned The Decemberists staying power, as the band has gone on to fill venues around the world. From 2001’s debut EP 5 Songs through 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, here are the 11 best songs by The Decemberists.
The Portland band garnered some pop culture cred when it appeared in an episode of The Office, playing in the background as the Schrute family sat on the porch of their beet farm.
As for the song itself, it’s a slower-paced folk song that that generally keeps up a message of positivity—that is, until you dig deeper. Lines like, “when we arise from the bunkers” to “here all the bombs will fade away” show that things might be a bit complicated in “Sons and Daughters.” Yet, with Conlee’s delicate harmony and accordion talents, as well as Meloy’s bouzouki bursts, the song ends up being a post-apocalyptic good time.
This is one of the more political songs by the Decemberists, but it follows their fairly consistent moral stance. “This Is Why We Fight” addresses the vast waste and tragedy inherently present in war and includes lines like “Come attrition, Come the reek of bones, Come attrition, Come hell” making a pretty clear anti-war statement.
Also taken from The Hazards of Love, The Rake serves a character that competes with William for Margaret’s love. As a result, their competition yields a heavier, rock band sound for The Decemberists. As the Rake wails out his chorus of “alright,” he falls into a tightly worded enunciation of anger backed by some electric sounds. The tone is a consistently defiant up-tempo addition the album’s story.
This song is a welcome divergence from the Decemberists’ folky, historically founded tales of misery and sorrow. Instead, the lyrics convey a vague sense of indirect heartbreak as Meloy emotes “l loved you in springtime, I lost you when summer came.” Then he counters it with the statement that “we’re not so starry eyed anymore” line. The story of socially awkward love is in keeping with the undercurrent of vague, wry, humor that pops up in many Decemberists songs.
This song follows Meloy’s imagination as he envisions people’s lives and professions in different time periods. The narrators in “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” are all in one place and dreaming of another. It’s a wandering song, full of uncommon words and worlds, and a solid reflection of the Decemberists decade-long-perfected aesthetic.
This returns thematically to the Decemberists general disapproval of pro-war policies. It discusses the view of war from the perspective of people who pay the price, but don’t make the decisions. It has the refrain of, ” Cause America can, and America can’t say no,” with references to talking heads on TV that endorse decisions without reckoning a cost. Plus, its musical straightforwardness mimics the lyrical direct address.
The River Annan is a river in southwest Scotland. It’s appropriately steeped in folk tradition, of which bands like The Decemberists adapted in the mid-2000s. The song “Annan Water,” however, is part of the Decemberists’ concept album The Hazards of Love—a 17-track fantasy epic of a man named William stuck in the form of a deer and raised by the magical Forest Queen. Short synopsis: He falls in love with a human woman named Margaret. She gets pregnant. There are hazards with their love.
The song builds on a relentless rhythm and a steady strum, as Meloy’s voice wails at the river, begging it to let him pass over it. The chorus creates a sparse space for the organ to build a hymn-like accompaniment to Meloy’s direct plea for the river’s mercy. Like many Decemberists songs, it also includes a number of other obscure instruments to create strange, atmospheric sounds.
The Crane Wife is a story that might be familiar if you happen to have watched Reading Rainbow as a child. It’s a folk story about a man and a magical crane and human greed. For The Decemberists, “Crane Wife 1 & 2” told the story of how the man met the magical crane. This song covers the breakup, ending with a man repenting all the things he didn’t notice as he sees a “grey sky, a crane on wing” and finishes with the refrain “I will hang my head low” repeated with intensity. Although just a three-chord song, Meloy’s expressive vocals and narrative storytelling make “Crane Wife 3” a Decemberists classic.
The Decemberists have an affinity for writing about people working humble professions. In the case of “Eli, The Barrow Boy, the main character is a young man who sells coal, marigolds, corn cobs, and candle wax from a push cart, but can’t afford to buy nice dresses for his love. The song highlights Meloy’s strong sense of lyricism and the sparse instrumentals mixing with changing patterns create and alternately defiant and lamenting tune.
This is a classic Romeo and Juliet story, although a delightfully dark retelling of that familiar story. It has a theatrical flair with lines like “and our families can agree, I’m your brother’s sworn enemy, but I shout out my love to the stars.” Like many Decemberist songs it ends in tragedy when Valencia’s “frame fell limp in my arms.” The main character states firmly that he will ” swear to the stars, I’ll burn this whole city down,” leaving the exact body count for this song somewhat indeterminate. Still, the quick strumming, clapping rhythm, and bright little xylophone riff are likely to stay stuck in your head for a while.
“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is a Decemberists classic and a very theatrical one, at that. Set in a slightly indefinite moment in the past, the tragic tale is told through a toe-tapping tune. The song tells of a young man whose mother met a man with “a charming air, so cheap and debonair.” The man left his mother “a poor consumptive wreck.” Frontman Colin Meloy’s distinctive bleat is used advantageously to express the first person outrage of the song’s narrator, and as the song continues, Jenny Conlee’s feathery voice taking up the refrain: “Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole and break his fingers to splinters.”