The Decemberists' Shiny, Happy Protest Album
“There’s something therapeutic in looking at the apocalypse and laughing,” Colin Meloy says of the band’s I’ll Be Your Girl.
“Everything is awful” goes one of the many cheery sounding, morosely themed choruses from The Decemberists’ eighth album, I’ll Be Your Girl. Seventeen years into the Portland rock eccentrics’ career, Colin Meloy is writing more plainspoken lyrics than ever while his band accesses the joy of ’80s synthpop. Meloy’s signature nasal keen and fascination with folktales remains, but there’s a new helping of easily accessible sentiment—and Donald Trump–related angst.
In February, I spoke with Meloy about the album, which is out March 16 and is streaming at NPR now. This conversation has been edited.
Spencer Kornhaber: The moment on this album that made me laugh out loud was during “We All Die Young,” when you have this really happy children’s choir sing the song’s title. That’s a pretty demented thing to do, is it not?
Colin Meloy: Yeah, it is. It was surreal teaching them the line, but you got to give kids credit. They were really into the idea of shouting that phrase. We actually have a history of getting kids to sing questionable things. On Hazards of Love we cast three kids singing about what their father had done to them to kill them. In the spectrum of Decemberists’ use of children in song, it’s actually pretty PG.
What does the song means? That phrase [“We all die young”] coming from old people versus coming from a kid has a different meaning and resonance. It’s a celebration of our own mortality—of dying young, if you can manage it, and avoiding the horrors of modern life and adulthood.
Kornhaber: That’s one of many moments where the music is perky but the lyrics aren’t. How much irony are we supposed to hear?
Meloy: Plenty. We trade in a pop tradition that goes back to the Beatles, marrying really dour subject matter with upbeat chords and melodies. That’s the music I was raised on: Morrissey’s mewling over beautiful, peppy Johnny Marr guitar parts. That tends to find its way into the songs even on my most upbeat days. The cloud that’s been hovering over me—and hovering over everybody—has made the darker side even darker, and the peppier side even more of a wide, manic grin.
Kornhaber: I saw you called the album an “apocalyptic dance party,” which feels like a term that could describe a lot of albums lately.
Meloy: We’re having a very shared experience. It’s almost galvanizing, people coming out of the woodwork and saying, “Shit is fucked up.” There’s something therapeutic in looking at the apocalypse and laughing.
I was hearing a story about that incident in Hawaii when a false missile alert came down. There were a couple guys on a golf course whose phones went off at the same time, and they went through how much time they had, where they could go, what they could actually accomplish. And they came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do is continue playing golf. There was nothing else they could do. That, in some ways, is a shared experience in this country right now.
Kornhaber: That story sounds like a future Decemberists song topic. But there’s a capitulation in it, right?
Meloy: Obviously the golfers in Hawaii is not analogous to our current predicament. It is a thought experiment: The apocalypse is 10 minutes away; what really can you do? If you want to talk literally, I don’t think we are in that dire circumstances. Responding to that intuition to shout out that things are broken is some way forward. We’re not leading the charge, but it feels good to lend our voices to that ever-growing chorus of people who are saying, This is not right.
Kornhaber: How much do you want this read as a Trump album?
Meloy: I don’t think I set out to make an overtly topical or political record. The songs just came from where we were and where my head was at in the last year and a half. I didn’t want to go too over-the-top. For one thing, I don’t know that I feel like the white straight-male voice is really the voice that needs to be amplified right now, or necessarily be the one singing protest music. There is powerful and topical music to be made by those communities who are oppressed. I don’t think it’s necessarily my place. That said, you can’t help but have some of that stuff just come through the cracks as you’re working.
Kornhaber: How do you balance that desire to not speak out of turn with the knowledge that you have a special platform that could be used for something?
Meloy: I don’t know how much of a platform I have, to be honest. I’m often preaching to the choir. There’s a homogeneity to our fan base and to our community, certainly in Portland, which is a city that struggles with its homogeneity. The people who have real voices—you think of hip-hop people, people in the LGBT music community, country artists speaking out against the NRA. That’s a real platform. I’m just trying to be part of the chorus, really.
Kornhaber: Some of the songs on this album are a bit simpler and more straightforward than what you’re known for. How’d that come about?
Meloy: I’ve become a better editor as I’ve gotten older. I look back on some of the early records and sometimes wonder if that songwriter could have used an editor, getting rid of a verse here and there. This record was an effort to challenge myself and create something that felt fresher. I was being a little more critical of what I was writing, which is not something I’m necessarily comfortable doing.
Having worked on a handful of books [recently], editing became a new and terrifying thing. Which was a learning curve, but in the end you learn that being more economical in your language can only make things better.
Kornhaber: Was someone else playing the role of editor in your music before?
Meloy: No. That’s the thing about writing books that was so different. All of a sudden there was another voice in the process saying, “Actually, this doesn’t work here,” or, “Actually, this is inconsistent here.” Which is, as you know, an essential part of writing. But it’s not part of the songwriting process because songwriting is like this precious thing where the songwriter goes into his cave and creates “Blowin’ in the Wind”—it doesn’t matter how many verses it has.
Kornhaber: Was the opening song meant to be a statement of this new approach? It’s mostly variations on one line: For once in my life / Could just something go right?
Meloy: That song was an experiment in economy. It came out of this chord progression, which then suggested this melody and this line. If I had written that 10 years ago, I would have immediately gotten down to, “What’s the verse going to be?” and, “What’s the bridge going to be?” My headspace now is, “What happens if that’s the only thing in the song?” Then it became a question of making something that doesn’t bore the listener to tears—something compelling and dynamic with just a couple sentences.
What was exciting to me was the [lyrical] sentiment. I don’t know if I have a right to say, “Won’t something just go right in my life,” considering that I feel very fortunate. But it is a sentiment that everybody has felt one time or another. And when you feel that way, that’s all you feel. It’s straight from the id, a really raw plea. I want to call it “Sucker’s Prayer No. 2” because in some ways it is the sucker’s prayer that the other song [“Sucker’s Prayer,” also on I’ll Be Your Girl] talks about in a more disdainful way.
Kornhaber: I was going to ask about “Sucker’s Prayer,” because that song seems to discourage this kind of impossible yearning.
Meloy: Right, but what are you supposed to do? I don’t think the narrator in “Sucker’s Prayer” is a reliable person to take advice from. There’s a haplessness and hopelessness. Again, it’s this thing of there’s such despair that you suddenly round the horn and there’s humor to it. In some ways I’m just making fun of myself. On our last record there is a song that said, “I’m not going on just to sing another singalong suicide song.” That’s basically what that is.
Kornhaber: Part of the fun of your band has been its ability to be obsessed over and decoded. Do you still want that to be part of the package?
Meloy: There’s still nods and winks to the audience. I guess I care less [now] about communicating that we’re part of a special club. Early on, some of [the lyrics] were written in reaction to how I viewed myself in a social space or in music. Writing songs about legionnaires or chimney sweeps was poking a hole in what “indie rock” was. There was a lot of fun to come out of that, and we found a community that way.
But then what happens when a community grows beyond just a couple hundred people in the club? It became less interesting to me to create something that was so exclusive. I’m more interested in being inclusive these days.
Kornhaber: What’s with the gender confusion of the title and title track?
Meloy: That song is a response to our [society’s] general gender confusion, or the erasure of gender, which to my mind is a welcome thing. “I’ll be your girl” or “I’ll be your man” or “I am your girl” is a very common sentiment that is very rock and roll. It just occurred to me that it would be funny and interesting to write a song called “I’ll Be Your Girl” and have it be sung by a man. What does a love song mean when you erase gender or flip gender? Something else. There’s plenty for the listener to decide what it does mean.
Kornhaber: I was thinking about it in contrast to the two-part song “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes” which is based on a Slavic myth about a water sprite who lures men to their death. Are you thinking those sorts of stories in terms of gender as well?
Meloy: It hasn’t occurred to me, but yeah, that’s a really gendered story. In some ways it plays into this misogyny of old folksongs, that idea of the temptress. I’m into folktale tropes, and in this instance I thought it was interesting to do two songs. In one, there’s a willingness [from the narrator], they’re in collusion with the sprite. In the second, it’s more of a foolhardy thing. I may be wrong from a historical perspective, but I think there’s a lot of power in that female presence of the Rusalka. It’s the men who are the foolish ones.
Kornhaber: The video for the first single, “Severed,” references Trump, and the lyrics echo his Republican National Convention speech. But what does it mean that the narrator wants to “leave you all severed”?
Meloy: It’s trying to lay out what is Trump’s subtext, which is often just what he’s saying. “Leave you severed” alludes to divisiveness, which is the end goal of not only Trumpism but the GOP platform. Divide and conquer.
Kornhaber: Does Trump make you think of any folk stories? Any archetypes?
Meloy: God, what does he represent? He’s like the beast, the great evil in the land. He’s the witch that is getting kids to the house to put them in the oven. We all recognize him as the villain—I think he even sees himself as a villain. I think his followers even see him as the villain. That is part of his appeal.
Kornhaber: From “Starwatcher,” the line “At the laundromat they’re whispering of war” is a good encapsulation of how dread can creep into everyday life. Was it from a real experience?
Meloy: Did that come from being at a laundromat? No. But in this current political climate we are all wondering, where does autocracy begin? Do you recognize it? How quickly do you recognize it? What are the first signs?
I think about the coming of the communist revolution in 1917, something that dramatically altered not only millions of people’s lives but the course of history. It really started from young men in coffee houses reading and talking. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV version, there are those flashback scenes where there are all these little signs of what was to be the coming authoritarianism. Somebody being kicked out of a café, or a credit card not working.
“Starwatcher” is about trying to pick those out, or mark them. The starwatcher is the herald who says, “This is happening, hold your ground.”
Kornhaber: Is it the artist’s job to be the starwatcher?
Meloy: [Laughs] Oh god. I don’t know. I can’t answer that.