I awake just past 6am, my brain a buzzing with activity and it feels like I just walked into the middle of a heated conversation. Like I opened the door to a room filled with whirling dervishes and it shut behind me and locked me in. I could have slept at least another hour; or at the very least I had no good reason to arise before 7, if not 7:30. This realization leaves me feeling irritated as I know I’m up for good now. There’s no going back to sleep.
I see no need to exert myself and actually get out of bed, so I reach for my iPad on the bedside table. My headphone earbuds are still attached from the night before. I’d finally fallen asleep around 2am to a Spotify playlist of didgeridoo soundscapes, but the calm that the circular breathing had instilled is but a distant memory. I decide to play a guided meditation from my Insight Timer app. Something to guide me to focus on my breath and slow the dervishes. I push the white orbs into my ears and a second later, music begins playing. Not Australian dronings, more like familiar alternative rock. Something I’d heard many times before but couldn’t yet place. I figure that maybe Spotify is still streaming and the tablet had never shut down. I flip the cover of the iPad and double tap the round button on the bottom. Spotify is inactive. I check Google; no tabs open. iTunes. Nothing. I close every app. The music still plays.
I suddenly realize the song playing is The Decemberists’ “Make You Better,” one of my favorite songs from 2015. I decide that as much as I’m flummoxed by not knowing the source of the music, I’m glad that this ghost DJ has awesome taste. My anxious mood begins to lift; I can feel it literally floating off my body as I let the song’s opening swirls of piano, bass and drums fill my heart, brain and lungs. By the time Colin Meloy’s familiar, inimitable warble summons the opening phrases, “I want you, thin fingers/I want you, thin fingernails” the song has coated the entirety of my insides like a velvety gas. It feels like eating the most exquisitely chilled, chocolate cheesecake. (Which would indeed create a velvety, pungent gas should I not take two Lactaid.)
Of all the bands that I was obsessed with in the early 2000s who are still making new music — New Pornographers, Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon — The Decemberists are the only one that has grown along with me, some 15 plus years later. I’m just as likely to play their most recent album, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, as I would their early classic, Castaways and Cutouts. I still harbor a deep love for that 2002 debut, can still be transported back to the first time I heard it, playing it on a CD boombox while I planted lettuce and squash in the garden. I bought the album based solely on a written review in Mojo magazine. Now when I read a review of a highly praised debut album, I just digitally toss it into a bucket of Spotify playlists and hope I find time to listen to it one day. (That’s a topic for another post.)
Castaways and Cutouts sounded like nothing I’d heard before. The vocals were up front in the mix and I could actually understand the hyper literate lyrics. Well, maybe not understand exactly — there were a ton of historical and nautical references that went over my head — but I could make them out, they were well-annunciated. And they weren’t a typical guitar/bass/drums band. Accordion was featured prominently, as well as theremin, pedal steel and organ. The songs were dark and moody but with an undercurrent of humor that kept it all from becoming dreary and precious. For those who like comparisons, The Decemberists, to me, were like The Smiths by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. I feel pretentious just writing that sentence. “The Legionnaire’s Lament” best encapsulates all those qualities for me.
When listening, now, to a song like “Make You Better,” I can hear and feel a profound musical and thematic expansion in The Decemberists’ sound. They aren’t singing about shanties and fair maidens anymore; the accordion and theremin have been shelved. But there’s an honesty and a reverence of pop songcraft in this tune that they needed thirteen years of playing music together to achieve.
But we’re not so starry eyed anymore/Like the perfect paramour that you were in your letters, singer/guitarist Colin Meloy laments in the song’s chorus. It’s a comment on a long-term love relationship that may or may not be over, a remembrance of youth and of dreams, but it’s not entirely nostalgic. There’s an underlying feeling of having become a better person because of a shared history.
So, I suppose The Decemberists do still sing about history and exotic far off worlds, but they no longer need to dress in pantaloons and sail the fiery seas in order to find their musical treasures. They’ve discovered the pirate booty in their own backyards, the stories hidden in their modern day lives.
Who knows if The Decemberists’ new music will continue to musicially and thematically align with me over the years — they could put out a Barry Manilow tribute album and I’ll probably love it — but I feel like we’ve had 15 years together to develop a certain comfortability, and no matter what crazy roads we decide to travel, they will undoubtedly lead us right back to each other.
I have to believe that this phantom musical moment is a sign to rekindle the Fuzzy Warbles music blog. I’ve been feeling pretty shitty for having abandoned it for a couple of months. I’m good at being harsh on myself; music has been my #1 savior in combating the evil beasts of depression and self-loathing for my entire life. Hearing this song again is yet another reminder of the power of music. But just listening to it isn’t enough. I need to write about it. Cause that’s the one simple truth about music It makes you better.