An allegorical tale of a murderous mermaid is very Decemberists. But, the song, “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes” is just a pit stop on an album that otherwise avoids their usual elaborate folktales.
Instead, “I’ll Be Your Girl” has less resolution. It laughs at the apocalypse and at itself. It questions everything, blurs boundaries and expectations and switches things up in a time of confusion where “everything is awful,” as one of the songs is titled.
Colin Meloy questioned everything for this record, beginning with gender, for the album title and titular track.
“I just thought it was interesting, that phrase: ‘I’m your man, I’ll be your man, I’m your guy.’ It’s kind of a time-honored rock ‘n roll trope,” Meloy says. “It’s super gendered. The ‘I’m your man’ is very masculine, like ‘I’m gonna protect you,’ whereas, ‘I’ll be your girl’ tends to feel more passive. So it was interesting to me, this idea of a man thinking ‘I’ll be your girl’ as totally erasing what the gender means.”
Meloy says he brought this same awareness and criticism to the songwriting process. “It really required kind of tearing it down and building it up from scratch.”
Thus was the journey that led him to “Severed,” which is perhaps the album’s most deviant track. Meloy says that he wrote it with a guitar to have a punk tempo and rock vibe. But, when playing it in the studio, it wasn’t peaking anyone’s interest. When they started to strip it down and re-think it, Jenny Conlee set an arpeggio throughout the track to keep time.
“All of a sudden, in my ears, it was like ‘Oh, now we’re making a New Order song.’ And we proceeded accordingly.”
He says the rest of the album was a lot like this—a collaborative effort. In the peppy, but ironically dark track “We All Die Young,” a saxophone and a children’s choir are especially unexpected for The Decemberists.
I had a conversation with Colin Meloy of The Decemberists about the irony of getting kids to sing “We All Die Young” and of making another “singalong suicide song” (after he said he wouldn’t).
“I’ll Be Your Girl” is the sound of a veteran band finding new inspiration. It’s the work of a band that’s unafraid of self-criticism and of challenging itself.
“Making music is an infinite choose-your-own-adventure,” says singer/songwriter Meloy (who is also the author of a series of best-selling children’s books), “and when you go down one path, the other paths get sealed off. So every time we could, we said, ‘If this is what our impulses would tell us to do, let’s try to imagine it in a different way.’”
This time, Meloy says, the songs share an ironic mood of “exuberant nihilism, an apocalyptic dance party” that’s steeped in our current times and condition.
“We’d been talking a lot about early Roxy Music and of course there’s a great sax player who is kind of a hallmark of Roxy Music,” says Meloy. “So, it was injecting a little bit of that.”
As far as the choir, he gives the credit to their producer, John Congleton.
“I had been toying with the idea of this call and response thing,” says Meloy. “After I said that would be part of the song, [John] turned to me and said, ‘Well, it’ll be a children’s choir. Right?”
So, they brought together a group of their own kids and children of friends and neighbors to shout “We all die young” to bring an more ironic meaning and darker resonance to the song than adults would have.
In an interview with The Atlantic, he says, “It’s a celebration of our own mortality—of dying young, if you can manage it, and avoiding the horrors of modern life and adulthood.”
It’s a celebration of our own mortality—of dying young, if you can manage it, and avoiding the horrors of modern life and adulthood.
Childhood is obviously something sacred to Meloy, who writes the “Wildwood Chronicles,” the bestselling middle-grade fantasy-adventure series from him and Carson Ellis, award-winning artist and Meloy’s wife.
He talks about how writing books and writing songs are different:
“Writing a book will often feel like manual labor. It literally sometimes just feels like moving a stack of rocks on one side of your yard to the other. And then you edit, moving in that entire pile back to where it was. It’s about putting in the man hours really to get it done.”
“Songwriting tends to be a little bit more elusive. It’s like just sitting on a couch and kind of strumming a guitar and singing along. In that sense it’s sort of like unemployment. [laughs]”
In “I’ll Be Your Girl,” his inner novelist shows. For the first time, The Decemberists’ lyrics are more straightforward and less wordy—they’re edited.
“There were moments [in the past] when I thought I was making familiar choices. I tried to be mindful in the songwriting process of challenging myself and being a little more critical. The idea was, how can we make unfamiliar choices, turn off the light a little and grope around in the dark a bit?”
“I’ll Be Your Girl” turned out to be an unpredictable turn for the band. But, Meloy apparently couldn’t help including just one more “suicide singalong song.”
He said in 2005’s “Anti-Summersong” that he wouldn’t write that kind of song again, though in “Sucker’s Prayer,” he kind of did. But at the same time, he didn’t. This time it’s with a subtle irony.
“It’s something universal that everybody feels at some point or another, that sort of feeling of inability to sort of connect with the world around you,” but Meloy says he’s “representing it with some humor, but also, yeah, I’m poking fun at myself.”
You can sing along to “Sucker’s Prayer” and these other new songs when The Decemberists perform their new album on Sunday, April 8 at the Riverside Theater.
Last time they were there, they pulled people on stage during their encore of “Sons & Daughters.” As for his plans for the upcoming show, Meloy says, “We’ll just have to wait and see.”