The Decemberists are touring on the back their new album, The King Is Dead, which scored them their first Billboard number one record at home in USA. Initial reaction might suggest this to be a bloody weird thing to happen but on closer investigation of the album it is not exactly surprising. Somewhat logical even. For The Decemberists, led as ever by the unmistakable voice of Colin Meloy, made an album that drinks deep of the American waters. From classic indie rock to plain ol’ classic rock, through the ever present lens of country music, they indulge in stereotypes and cliches throughout the album. All with that nasal warble over the top. It’s a strange listen for any long-time fan, as the old touchstone of Meloy’s vocal remains practically unchanged over this new set of countrified backing tracks, creating a slightly uncomfortable dichotomy. Whether or not it works is a controversial question. How this new direction would play itself out in a large room full of people was another question altogether.
Things do not start well. The opening half hour is made up primarily of new songs and the lingering doubts about the welding of Meloy’s voice to Nashville music are redoubled as the band listlessly play their way through a series of unoriginal cuts from that new album. Great country music works on a very particular level, and though it is not one that overly prides originality, it requires a certain ability to play with the rules, twist them into something a little different. Where The Decemberists’ new songs fail most obviously is in their inability to connect to that cool, casual-yet-sincere tone that runs though the genre at its most basic and most vital. Meloy stands front and centre on the stage, his band arrayed around him in a semi-circle, playing with all the gusto of a light breeze. His voice grates over the smoothness of the music, his lines too intricate to be country, too simple to be classic Meloy. The rest of the band are often stock still, rattling out numbers like ‘Calamity Song’ or ‘Rox In The Box’ in much the same way as a group of crack Nashville session musicians would. They don’t so much wear their influences on their sleeves as fashion masks and costumes from them, inhabiting characters with no apparent consideration for their own strengths.
As the second half of the set dawns, things begin to pick up. Older songs are trotted out, and the best of The King Is Dead gets an airing. With ‘June Hymn’ and ‘This Is Why We Fight’, the band reclaim some of their own identity, shaking off the dust of R.E.M. and Whiskeytown, and returning to their playful sense of the macabre and tragicomic. The turn becomes obvious with tracks like ‘The Rakes Song’ from 2009’s The Hazards Of Love and ‘Shankhill Butchers’ from The Crane Wife. This is no accident. These tracks, and others like them, allow Meloy to play characters more suited to his voice, his peculiar syntax and his verbose manner of expression. The villainous disposition has always worked well for Meloy and these songs light up on stage, bringing the whole room to life. They ooze with sadistic humour and charm, a theatrical darkness which suits the whole band so much more than feigned sincerity. Meloy is the perfect front man in these situations, able to laugh at himself and his characters, a cackling Libertine, an irascible MacHeath.
The night reaches its climax with the soaring rendition of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge’ during the encore. It pushes the band to the edge of musical theatre, a place they are quite comfortable with. It has everything a great pantomime would have; hummable melodies, comedy, ludicrously over-the-top story line and a gloriously happy ending. The audience roar like people trapped in the belly of a whale when requested and they sing along happily the rest of the time. The slapstick stage deaths of the bands members are beautifully innocent and undeniably funny; wide grins are pandemic at this point. It’s a great way to end a night, easily reminding Vicar St. why the unassuming people on stage are an important band. The bad taste of the first half hour is washed away and you’re left feeling like you should do after listening to The Decemberists; somewhat puzzled, subtly moved and a good bit lighter of heart.