He doesn't rant about the pitiful state of the world or preach about the way things ought to be. He doesn't grunt beneath those who keep him down or vent about those who break him. He's not like Bob Dylan, and he's no John Lennon. He's not what you'd consider a classically celebrated songwriter. Still, the Decemberists' Colin Meloy is easily one of today's best.
Listening to Meloy lament with so much conviction and write with so much genius on the group's latest, Her Majesty the Decemberists (Kill Rock Stars), it's clear you don't have to write about how broken your heart is to prove you have one.
The new album whisks its listeners into an anachronistic world of sorry saps, dirty secrets, gymnasts, soldiers and red right ankles. Meloy gets lost in his tunefully antiquated tales no matter where they take him--on the clipper bound for South Australia, upon the rooftops in the dead of night or huddled in the trenches, gazing over the battlefield. Like the Decemberists' last release, Castaways and Cutouts (Hush/Kill Rock Stars), Her Majesty is born of an innovative, bookworm imagination and a phenomenal gift for matching prose to melody, gushing with passion and originality.
"I'm interested in creating a believable narrative, a narrative that you can get lost in," says Meloy, sitting on the back patio of an eastside Portland pub. "And the chords can help that, the melody can help that; it creates a tone that will invite the listener."
To ensure that the invitation was well-crafted, Meloy and company worked with local production guru Larry Crane at Jackpot! Studios on eight of Her Majesty's tracks, laying down the remaining three ("Shanty for the Arethusa," "Chimbley Sweep" and "As I Rise") with Norfolk & Western's Adam Selzer at Type Foundry Recording Studio. Crane helped the band capture a tight, crisp pop sound, while Selzer aided in the glowing ambience and spacious atmosphere.
Crane "will talk shit all day long, but when it comes down to it he's a fantastic engineer," Meloy says with a laugh. "He went at it like a Go Betweens record--it's a little tighter, a little crisper.
"Adam comes from a Calexico/ Giant Sand approach, where 16 tracks is plenty and if you need more you're doing too much."
Despite all the production notes, the characters form the meat of Meloy's songs. Bound by a common adoration for the wretched and the wondrous, Her Majesty gives birth to quirky literary characters then grants each an enthralling soundtrack. The band ransacks 18th-century Welsh villages in the ghostly, marching opener "Shanty for the Arethusa." It abhors "the ocean's garbled vomit on the shore" that is L.A. in the ironic, lofty "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." It ventures into the downtrodden mind of a penniless soul in the stomping, accordion-huffing "Chimbley Sweep." And it weeps and overcomes in the heart-rending, all acoustic "Red Right Ankle."
For many of the tales told, Meloy received some posthumous assistance from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Textured by an endearing and delightfully woven arrangement of instrumentation, Her Majesty tips its hat often to Thomas' play Under Milkwood.
"There's tons of stuff that is directly ripped off from Thomas--it's like a hair shy of plagiarism," says Meloy, laughing. "That was a real driving force around writing a lot of those songs, because it's one of my most favorite pieces of writing."
Given that Thomas was known for slipping discreet sexual innuendo into his prose, it's only natural that Her Majesty would submit to a similar position. "Oh, it's totally dirty," says Meloy, snickering. "It's really sweet, it's dirty in a pastoral way. The first lines in 'Billy Liar,' he's masturbating but it's non-offensive because that's a story of an adolescent.
"It's well-intended, it lightens it up and it's funny and sweet," he adds, smiling. A strange sentiment, but Meloy is a bit of a idiosyncratic character.
Having grown up in Helena, Mont., Meloy took a path away from life as usual.
"From an early age, I wasn't fitting into your typical Montana-born and -bred young male, where the status quo was either you were a football player or a rancher," he says, sipping at a pint of brew. "I had a big imaginative life that was overruling and, because of that, I wasn't fitting in too well.
"But it's not difficult to be an outcast in Helena, Montana, believe me," the bespectacled Meloy added, grinning.
But in his wild, wild world--and the history books he'll go down in--he fits in just fine.
Friday, Nov. 7, at Berbati's, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9 pm. Cover. 21+.