Understanding the Decemberists in 13 Songs

The Decemberists are nothing less than the band that got me into indie rock, albeit in a very non-indie way: back in January of 2009, I was watching a rerun of one of my favorite episodes of How I Met Your Mother, “Ted Mosby, Architect”. During the episode’s denouement, as Ted Mosby walks the streets of New York and muses on his relationship woes, the seminal Decemberists’ track “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” plays. I’d seen the episode before, but something inside me told me to look up the song this time — and just a month later I had purchased all five of the Decemberists’ LPs (including the newly released The Hazards of Love) and was at the beginning of a relationship that I still find myself in. They’ve provided the soundtrack of my past 6 years, good and bad, and with their new album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World there’s no better time to fall in love with them again — or for the very first time.

Of course, listening to 7 rather long studio albums and several EPs & singles is a daunting task. That’s why I’m here: to lend my expertise and condense the 150ish songs on my iTunes (pretty much everything they have available digitally or on disc) into a compact playlist of 13 must-hear essential tracks. Note that these aren’t necessarily the best songs by the Decemberists, although there is considerable overlap. These, rather, are the songs that you must hear to at least gain a cursory understanding of the Decemberists: who they are, and who they were.

1) “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” from 5 Songs (2001)

5 Songs (which ironically has 6 songs) was released in 2001, a year before their debut LP. “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” isn’t the best song on the EP (“Apology Song” is), and it’s actually a cover of a song by frontman Colin Meloy’s previous band, Tarkio, whose version I actually like better. All of this isn’t to scare you away, but to show where the Decemberists started. There’s already the love of narrative, dense vocabulary, sense of humor, and the grandeur that we’ll see later, but it’s a bit clumsy; the musical elements don’t quite fit. It took another year of hammering out songs for the Decemberists to pull it all together with…

2) “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)

This may be the first Decemberists song I ever heard, but it doesn’t make it anything less than one of the finest songs they’ve written. Castaways and Cutouts is one of the best debuts I’ve ever heard, and “Here I Dreamt” is its second best song. You can hear “My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist” deep inside here, but everything is better, wittier, and more emotional. Meloy’s witticisms are sharper (“but the angles and the corners/(even though my work is unparalleled)/never seemed to meet”), his absurdity less clumsy, and his romanticism more affecting. Meloy’s guitar line cycles and bounces off of Ezra Holbrook’s drums, Jenny Conlee’s keyboards chime beautifully during the verses and her organ sings during the chorus. Everything works together to make this one of the Decemeberists’ absolute best songs, right up there alongside…

3) “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” from Castaways and Cutouts (2002)

I once read an interview with Colin Meloy in which the interviewer asked him specifically about the guitar sound on this song, and Meloy said “a twelve-string in drop-D naturally is going to sound pretty majestic no matter how you record it.” He was right: this is no less than the most majestic, beautiful song I’ve ever heard. When Chris Funk’s slide guitar drifts through Conlee’s organ, Meloy’s strums, and  Holbrook’s pounding bass drum as Meloy sings “beneath the sun of California One” is the closest a song has ever come to replicate the warmth of sunlight on a face. The opening alone, all resounding guitar and bowed bass, is more beautiful than the entirety most songs; yet “California One” goes on for another jaw-droppingly gorgeous 9 minutes, producing catharsis unmatched by anything else in their catalog. Sit back and enjoy what may be one of the finest pieces of music in the past 20 years, then listen to:

4) “Red Right Ankle” from Her Majesty the Decemberists (2003)

If “California One” represents the full scope and power of the Decemberists’ combined grandeur, then “Red Right Ankle” shows the genuine tenderness of Colin Meloy, unadorned save for a lone, brief organ solo. Meloy likes to write about and hide behind characters, and it can be hard to connect with him if you don’t feel like listening to a narrative. On one level, “Red Right Ankle” is no different — it does feature a verse about a bandit uncle in the Pyrenees — but the final verse written to his now-wife (and official Decemberists’ artist ) Carson Ellis is an ode to her past lovers, a sincere and affectingly direct look at the baggage we all carry. And if this is too much romance for you, then you should get a laugh out of…

5) “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right” from Billy Liar (Single) (2004)

Simultaneously funny, sad, and endearing, Meloy’s clever verse about dating woes alternates between comic directness (“We both had some fun/Though I twice bit my tongue/And it lasted too long for my taste”) and morose musings. The titular chorus, rather than being overly morose, sounds charmingly pathetic, and the conclusion of the song smartly ends with just a hint of existential reservation. The song’s keyboard-driven opening points to a band that was beginning to experiment with their sound. One of their most enjoyable and hilarious songs, and one that shows just how far they’d come since “My Mother Was”. Their next album, however, would produce…

6) “The Bagman’s Gambit” from Picaresque (2005)

The Decemberists were always a weird band, and Picaresque is their weirdest album. It is also their best. There’s something inscrutably different that permeates it. Maybe it’s that the entire album was recorded in a church, lending every track a gorgeous, unifying reverb. Maybe it’s the slightly broader and more modern characters — it still doesn’t feel contemporary, but it certainly doesn’t feature a cast of 19th century chimney sweeps and vagabonds. Rather, the songs feel out of time; their characters and themes are universal. “The Bagman’s Gambit” is a further refinement of the Decemberists’ outsize ambition and hints towards the left turn they’d take on the following album, while also being one of their best songs. In spite of the specificity of its double-agent spy narrative, it remains relatable. Its heart-stopping cold-turkey ending following a tremendously effective noise freakout stands as one of the Decemberists’ greatest moments.

7) “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from Picaresque (2005)

If “The Bagman’s Gambit” is an evolution of their ability to use grandeur and force to generate beauty, then “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is the exact opposite. It is exactly what it sounds like: a 9-minute accordion-driven sea shanty telling of a sailor’s long hunt for revenge on the man who betrayed his mother’s trust. This is the purest distillation of Meloy’s weird, fetishistic love for narrative. If you love this song, then it’s pretty safe to say that you’ll love any song from the deepest recesses of the Decemberists’ catalog: the ” A Cautionary Tale”s, the “Shanty for the Arethusa”s. It is also one of the group’s greatest combined efforts, recorded in one take around a single microphone, with each band member stepping closer to or away from the mic to increase or decrease their volume, and prominently featuring Jenny Conlee and drummer Rachel Blumberg on vocals. For something totally different, listen to…

8) “The Engine Driver” from Picaresque (2005)

Perhaps the best piece of songwriting Meloy has ever produced, “The Engine Driver” is often (rightly) cited as the Decemberists’ best and most essential track. The song’s three verses, at first seemingly narratives about three different characters, are interconnected truths and about Colin Meloy: he is the bus driver (band leader), he is the writer of fictions, he is the man whose father didn’t want him to pursue a career in music, and he is the man who has become a money lender, albeit a modest one. All of this is buoyed by Rachel Blumberg’s astounding drumming, her little rata-tat-tats on the snare pushing the song forward, her churning drum fills coloring in the song’s spaces. And with a chorus like “And if you don’t love me, let me go”, this is one of the Decemberists’ least obtuse and most palatable songs. The next, however, is the exact opposite…

9) “The Island” from The Crane Wife (2006)

Before, the Decemberists were weird in the way that I’m weird: obsessed with Victorians, fascinated by the sea, doomed heroines, and literature. On “The Island”, the Decemberists get weird much in the manner of the kid who listens to Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd while stone-cold sober, unashamedly enjoying what most people have to be high to tolerate, which, oddly enough, is also me. They’ve substituted plaintive strumming and accordion for Led Zeppelin guitar histrionics and back-breaking walls of organ. All of this is thundered home by new drummer John Moen’s heavy-handed hits, accompanied in the song’s middle section by a new found love for 80s laser-beam synthesizers. Of course, just when the song reaches its height of excess, it scales back to a harrowing conclusion as Meloy gently plucks a mournful guitar line over lyrics inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This song is about as weird as the Decemberists have ever gotten; Meloy remarked on Instagram a few weeks ago that he had forgotten that they used to be a prog band. Sure enough, it proved a passing phase.

10) “The Raincoat Song” from Always the Bridesmaid: Vol. 3 (2008)

One of the Decemberists’ simplest and most poignant songs, featuring only Meloy’s guitar and voice and some harmonies courtesy of John Moen. “The Raincoat Song” was released as part of a series of EPs recorded during the 3-year gap between The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, and each EP finds the Decemberists covering different ground. This is the song you most need to hear out of the lot, and furthered the trend of one solo Meloy song per record that started back with “Red Right Ankle” and will lead us to the next song on our list…

11) “June Hymn” from The King Is Dead (2011)

This album may have been released in January, but its best song is an ode to summer. A song that is filled with warmth and yearning, redolent of long summer evenings, the deepening twilight, and the blooming of life. The apotheosis of the solo-Meloy songs (“Red Right Ankle”, “Eli, the Barrow Boy”, “Shankill Butchers”) — it’s hard to imagine a song better than this one.

12) “Don’t Carry It All” from The King Is Dead (2011)


It’s almost hard to tell that this is the same band that once featured the lyric “I will be buried with my marionettes / Countess and Courtesan have fallen ‘neath my tender hand / When their husbands were not around”. The King Is Dead sees the Decemberists angling in a decidedly more American and grounded direction; indeed, the focus here is on hard work, bounty from nature, and the loamy soil that will eventually envelope us all. This is a starkly positive Decemberists, more Tom Petty than Morrissey, and kicks off a new focus for the once baroque band. Of course, they still couldn’t get through a single song without mentioning a dead kid (“There, a wreath of trillium and ivy / Laid upon the body of a boy”). Some things never change.

13) “A Beginning Song” from What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (2015)

The Decemberists took four years to recharge, release some folk albums, and write a few books. They came back with What a Terrible World, their most varied album. “A Beginning Song” is the album’s closer, and its best song, a 5 and a half minute juggernaut that absolutely drips with emotion and catharsis, simultaneously dragged down and held up by the palpable weight and hope of human existence. Lord knows what exactly this song is about, but that’s what makes it so great. It at once feels like a quintessential Decemberists song and something wholly fresh — the musical equivalent of opening the windows on the first day of spring to let out winter and let in the new life all around us. A new beginning, you might say.