When an old indie trend gets tiresome and boring, musicians have to find new ones to replenish their cred. The New York nü-gazer thing is sorta done. Neo-glam didn’t have a chance. And the old-timey folk movement is still healthy for now, but when that goes, then what? Prog. That’s what. The concept album is back, as artists like Cursive and Sufjan Stevens have embraced the idea of album-as-storytelling. And Mars Volta and 31 Knots have the sound down. But the most surprising group to take on this weighty and awkward genre is The Decemberists, who do so to unexpectedly brilliant effect.
The Decemberists’ new EP, The Tain, sees the group cramming in 18 minutes of non-stop musical theatrics into one track. Yeah, you read that right. One track. Instead of splitting their five part rock opera into five tracks, they just let the sucker go, giving us all the inconvenience of not being able to press “skip.”
But that’s what’s so brilliant about it. Partly, anyway. Being a five-part endless piece of music, the Portland group intended the EP to be heard on the whole, rather than in snippets. And like all culprits of writing 18-minute songs, The Decemberists have done so with a theme in mind — an 8th century Celtic poem. Luckily, they don’t sing in Gaelic.
Frontman Colin Meloy does, however, inject a different aspect of the Emerald Isle’s traditions in Part I — a dirty limerick:
“And granted for their pleasure/
Possessions laid to measure/
She’s a salty little pisser/
With your cock in her kisser/
But now she’s a will of her own”
Musically, the EP is all over the place. The aforementioned “rock opera” description is an accurate name for the work, as it’s as dramatic and emotional as anything this side of Tommy. Meloy begins Part I himself, playing a simple acoustic guitar riff between verses, followed up by huge explosions of Sabbath-like metal bursts. It’s a totally new side of the band to those who know The Decemberists for being whimsical songsters in the vein of Neutral Milk Hotel and Robyn Hitchcock.
The loud guitars and organs continue in Part II, while Part III moves into more balladic territory. Part IV, however, is notable as the first Decemberists “song” written by drummer Rachel Blumberg, as well as a first lead vocal of hers. Part V ends the record with some military drums rattling, while Meloy returns to a limerick lyric pattern.
The Decemberists have always been great storytellers, but in The Tain they’ve proven that they can do it with heavy metal riffs in one 18 minute song. After a feat this audacious, it would seem logical that the best thing to do would be to simplify their next project, but with musical minds this ambitious, you never really know.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Belle and Sebastian – Wrapped Up in Books
Of Montreal – Satanic Panic in the Attic
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.