“Everything is Awful!” proclaimed Decemberists lead singer Colin Meloy to start the evening. It’s an odd way to start a show, telling the crowd about how much the world sucks (or reminding them, if you’re the pessimistic sort). But “odd” is a realm The Decemberists are not altogether unfamiliar with – The catchy, upbeat tune juxtaposed against this dismal announcement created a sense of cognitive dissonance few bands are able to pull off. Indeed, it set a perfect tone for the night: a celebration at the end of the world.
Okay, perhaps the end of the world is a bit dramatic – particularly for the Decemberists, a band that prefers to capture the melancholy of ordinary life. Whether it’s “Make You Better”, a song musing on our tendency to use relationships to better ourselves, or “Grace Hill Cathedral”, a songs about death featuring the lyrics “We were both a little hungry/So we went to get a hot dog”, The Decemberists equally praise and lament the little things that make us human. At their core, they are storytellers, and no story is too small to escape their eye.
Even the way their live show is arranged tells a story. Despite 7 or 8 other people being on stage, Colin waxes lonely in front and center stage accompanied by nothing but a guitar and mic stand, with the other members up on risers, drowning in instruments, forming a semi-circle around him. At any other show, I might observe this as a way of drawing attention to the front-man, of framing him as the center of attention; but this was something very different. Instead of being the most powerful man in the room, the lighting and space make him appear… alone. It harkens to a scene in a movie, where the outcast child protagonist is surrounded by the big kids, looking down on him menacingly. Lyrics like “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown” from “Sucker’s Prayer” certainly don’t do him any favours in this regard.
But, like any good movie with a lonely child protagonist being the butt of jokes, Meloy is occasionally down, but never out. Songs like “O Valencia” and “Ben Franklin’s Song” showcase Meloy at his toughest, belting out passionate lyrics about love and pride for all to hear. His self-awareness of his own situation is also very clear. He ended the main set with “Once in My Life”, prefaced with a disclaimer that his voice was going, and thus this song had special meaning to him (“Oh for once in my, oh for once in my life/Could just something go, could just something go right?”).
Showgoers that stayed for the second encore were treated to one of the most bizarre and fantastical displays I’ve ever experienced. I don’t even think I can put together words that adequately describe the opera that ensued in “Mariner’s Revenge Song”; it mixed absurdity, humor, and reckless abandon flawlessly, but you’ll have to go and see for yourself. The Decemberists North America tour continues through the summer – get tickets if you haven’t already. They are not a band you want to miss.