Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Decemberists, The Decemberists Present "Picaresque": On Cleverness

(Hat-tip to Fearful Syzygy for alerting me to the Toothpaste for Dinner cartoon.)
I have tried to really like this band, I really have. I am told by cool people that I am supposed to. Alas. It could just be that I'm old and detecting coolness is beyond me now. But I can't really say much that is flattering about the Decemberists, at least this album's presentation of their music, than, "Wow--are they ever clever!" Cleverness in art, just so you know, bothers me. A lot.

I'll try to define my term a little later. For now, though, I'd like to set that up by referring you to this Pitchfork interview with lead singer/writer Colin Meloy and bandmate Rachel Blumberg that appeared two years ago. As I was reading along, I was pulled up short by this little exchange:

Pitchfork: How does music itself affect your writing?

Colin: It wasn't until I started playing music that I discovered, it's sort of... you can use different characters, and you can use different narrative technique, and for some reason it works so much better in song. You can get away with so much more. Like you could never write-- well, I suppose you could write and it would end up as a dime-store novel-- a story about a girl who, you know, died and is a ghost. Or about a legionnaire stuck in the desert, things like that. But for some reason, in a pop song, it's like, whatever. It's an open canvas.

Rachel: I think it's particularly interesting having dark material contrasted with music that isn't necessarily so dark. I think that actually infuses it with a little more darkness.

Colin: Totally. And that's another great thing about pop music, is that so much of it is based on the tension between the melody and the lyrical content. You can do so much with that. And I think, moving to Portland and having this sort of clean slate, and more often than not playing to nobody at open mics and things like that, or playing at all these weird songwriters-in-the round and all these songwriters were singing about, god, I don't even know, just about the most banal, boring things...

Rachel: Like love.


And therein lies the problem for me.

As I was reading this, I found myself nodding in agreement with the idea of narrative's versatility when put into song and the tension that can be created between lyric and melody. Before the term became a sort of catch-all, "ballad" denoted story-songs, sung narratives. And something I do appreciate about what the Decemberists are doing is their use of that ancient idea and earlier musical forms. But Blumberg's dismissing of love as a subject for songs seemed to me to crystallize what, in the end, makes this band seem "clever" (as opposed to "good").

When I'm listening to a typical song from . . . Picaresque, I find myself thinking something along the lines of "Big vocabulary; nice images; but what the hell am I supposed to FEEL about all this??" Even in the album's centerpiece (or its longest song, at least), "The Mariner's Revenge Song," it's clear why the titular mariner seeks his titular revenge and why HE'S so pleased to be able to achieve said revenge, but I feel no emotional connection with him. Am I even supposed to? I can't tell whether the song is in earnest or is some sort of joke. For that matter, I can't tell how Meloy feels about the Mariner--which, of course, puts me at a disadvantage as I try to determine how I'm supposed to feel about him.

Yes: It's indeed a Good Thing that someone out there is still writing sea chanties. Really. I happen to like them. But more precisely, I happen to like sea chanties that reveal something to me about the lives of men who make their living on the sea, and not just any old song that trades on that tradition because, "like, whatever." This may be unfair, but that sense I get of emotional detachment of the Decemberists from the people who populate the songs they sing is a sign that they don't love, really care about, those people. Characters become flannel-board cut-outs; music becomes performance, technique over and above the conveyance of emotion. Cleverness, in other words.

And yet: The Decemberists CAN write songs that put the listener in the space described. "Of Angels and Angles," "Eli the Barrow Boy," and "The Bagman's Gambit," all tenderly sung by Meloy (whose voice more often reminds me of whichever Gallagher it was who sang lead for Oasis) and quietly played, are love songs, and the best ones on the album. They feel like they're really about people who feel stuff. They are why, for now, I'm not taking . . . Picaresque to the used CD store. But it's those other songs that make me extremely hesitant to pay full price for a Decemberists CD in the future.

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mannequinhands said...

I don't know about the Decemberists, but I do know that Toothpaste for Dinner is the best webcomic ever.

I'm going to be just like every other nerd from Columbus, Ohio and say "hey, the Toothpaste for Dinner guy lives here in Columbus!!!"


Well actually, I lied a little. I do know about the Decemberists. My sister IS the proverbial hipster, so I know these things. Because she makes me.

One of the problems with the Decemberists and their ilk is that they've bought into the weird hipster credo: Look at everything with ironic detachment and NEVER admit to feeling things like love, sentimentality or wonder. A lot gets lost in the ironic worldview, and I think art suffers from being filtered through it.

Really, I think that's why I find myself listening to metal, emo and Phish all the time - there's not a lot of irony in rocking out, whining or being a big dirty hippie. :)

I find that most of "those" bands - Decemberists, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Firey Furnaces, TV on the Radio and so on - entertain me for a while, but ultimately bore me. They are interesting at first because they are doing something clever and "look at me!", but that wears thin pretty quickly. Artists who are doing something smart, rather than clever, are the ones you'll pull out in 2010 and really get into again. You'll say "Oh man, I loved this album! Why haven't I listened to it in a long time?" Whereas the clever bands won't even be in your CD library anymore.

Decemberists. They' musical equivalent of Dave Eggers. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Eggers, but I doubt I will read anything he's written more than once.

John, have you listened to any Sufjan Stevens? I'm interested in what you'd think of him.

John B. said...

Thanks very much for the thoughtful commentary. We are, of course, in agreememnt.
As for Sufjan Stevens, I've not heard anything by him, but his name is popping up a lot of late. For me, that means I'll soon be seeking him out.

fearful_syzygy said...

I posted a link to a downloadable version of his Christmas Album on the forum recently (in the 'what are you listening to' thread), in case you just wanted a taster.

I hope you're enjoying the rest of Toothpaste for Dinner. So funny and so perceptive.

Ariel said...

Have you ever given The Weakerthans a try? On the clever vs. smart spectrum proposed by Erin, I think they score a resounding smart. Ironic observation without vapidity.

BTW, I went ahead and tagged you in a return-the-favor meme. :)

fin said...

I love those singing pirates!