English majors everywhere now have a new answer to the tired question, “What can you even do with that degree?”: Own the top spot on the Billboard album chart. The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy has been a champion of the tweed-jacket-with-a-scarf set since his band’s second album, Her Majesty the Decemberists inspired its own LiveJournal glossary site, including entries for “cardamom,” “bombazine” and “tarlatan.” But with The King Is Dead, his band has finally mainstreamed lit rock, selling more than 90,000 copies in its first week.
Still, with the opening harmonica wail and Gillian Welch’s Dust Bowl harmonies, it’s clear that The Decemberists’ latest finds them hitting the “reset” button after a run of densely layered albums that began with Picaresque, took a prog turn with The Crane Wife and vaulted into the folk-rock-opera stratosphere with The Hazards of Love. The Portland quintet hasn’t completely stripped down on its latest, but now mandolin, fiddle and some jangly guitar from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck are helping the band take a turn toward West Coast country rock.
“We were starting to layer 64 tracks doing the ‘The Infanta,’ and we had done ‘The Tain,’ and things were kind of escalating upwards,” says Meloy. “And I think after each of those sort of arduous recording processes we would be like, ‘Oh the next record we’ll do in a barn in two weeks.’ But then each time we’d come around to doing another record, that sort of excitement about making something bigger and grander just kept appealing. And this time, after Hazards of Love, there were a bunch of songs kicking around that were of a much quieter nature, and it just felt like the right time to make good on that threat, and actually go into a barn. While we didn’t do it in two weeks, the spirit was there.”
By our count, the death tally through Hazards of Love was 70, and while Meloy doesn’t really add to that number on the new album (except, you know, “The King”), death looms in the apocalyptic “Calamity Song” and the miner’s dirge “Rox in a Box.”
“I think everybody is fascinated with death,” he says. “And it’s certainly a fun thing to toy with. The gravity of death—especially in pop songs—makes a nice tension where you have a nice upbeat melody. But then you have the entire state of California sort of crumbling to the ocean. I think it’s an easy way for us to get our heads around what our own deaths mean by practicing it on other imaginary people and seeing how things would fare.”
Meloy cites the album Bowling Green by the Kossoy Sisters as a favorite source of murder ballads. “Not only was it in the ’60s,” he says, “but also these are centuries-old songs. I think it was interesting—people’s fascination with violence and death did not begin with the advent of the video game.”
But if there’s little violence on the new record, Meloy has saved some for his upcoming children’s novel, Wildwood, illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis. Due out this fall on HarperCollins, he says the trilogy is an homage to the epic fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, Roald Dahl and Lloyd Alexander, though it also has an unmistakable Decemberists streak running through it. Coyote soldiers battle bandits. Beloved characters are kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and felled.
“There’s violence, there’s drinking and there’s smoking. And I know those are the three things that will just get you hung by the librarians in this day and age, but I think that we really were trying to go for more of a classic sort of storybook feel. … I think its an important thing, to role play, for kids—as long as it remains in that world, and they are raised in a loving home. It should exist in imaginary descriptive fictions rather than in realities.”
Ever the English major, he’s also chosen not to dumb down his capacious vocabulary for a younger audience or spare them from the political machinations of the varied nations within his Impassable Wilderness. Wildwood is an epic tale about adults letting grief turn to revenge, letting fear turn to abuse and clinging blindly to power at all costs. Yet its 12-year-old protagonists make brave and selfless choices as the strange world around them descends into chaos. For fans who followed Meloy’s musical voyages into a world of fairies and evil queens on Hazards of Love, its merits are matched in novel form.
Meloy plans to take some time off to focus on the new book, but don’t expect too long of a hiatus for the band. “I’ve been compulsively writing music since I was in high school—even when I wasn’t even in a band or anything, I would write songs in my dorm room. So I don’t expect that’s anything I could ever get away from. By the time we finish with these books, I expect there will be a tidy little backlog of songs. You haven’t heard the last of The Decemberists.”
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.