t was once said of Oscar Wilde that the dandified playwright’s dinner party conversation was so dazzling, so perfectly phrased, it seemed Wilde had already written out everything he planned to say the night prior to the festivities.
Colin Meloy, on the other hand, really does sit up all night polishing his syllables and putting a shine to his tales, which is exactly why certain indie-rock observers find him overly precious or even downright insufferable.
If the windy tales and high-flown fables of the Decemberists have a contemporary foil, it’s the equally fanciful Fiery Furnaces, who nonetheless have escaped much of the censure directed at Meloy’s ornate fantasias.
Why? Apparently, the Friedbergers pull off the miraculous trick of sounding unforced and practically disinterested even as they bury you with narrative, exposition, and obscure world capitols.
Within that studied indifference is the secret genesis of rock’s cultural engine—the suggestion of sex and danger. No one can dispute their place at the forefront of rock aesthetics, and likewise none can deny the Decemberists possess not a shred of either quality.
A natural extension of that celebration of insouciance is the idea that nonchalance indicates realness and reliability, the implication of a closer relationship with truth simply because the presentation is relatively unvarnished.
Which is so much bullshit. Like Nellie McKay says, all dude-rock is a pose, and unless selling drugs or driving steel is your art, you’re always going be at least once removed from reality, which means you have just as much freedom to embellish or flat-out make shit up as Meloy.
The only difference is that rather than sell you snake oil, Meloy’s selling you a self-contained universe, and while there may be a certain self-consciousness in wilin’ out to Meloy’s carefully arranged costume dramas, it’s not really any more of an escape because all of the normal human conflicts are still there. “Sixteen Military Wives” skewers war-time hawks and doves with a devastating equanimity I haven’t heard equalled anywhere else post-9/11, and I’ll likewise be damned if there’s a difference between “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “Janie’s Got a Gun.” Or “On the Bus Mall” and “Roxanne.”
Meloy may rhyme “veranda” with “my sweet untouched Miranda” on “We Both Go Down Together,” but there’s no mistaking the way he aches in the chorus—a simple “oh my love” that wouldn’t have been half as moving without the preceding circumlocutions, the desperate, surrendering declarations of a smartypants stricken dumb by beauty. “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” is an obvious conceit, but it couldn’t be any more lovelorn and naked. Even more esoteric numbers like “Eli, the Barrow Boy” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” obey internal dramatics and emotionally transcend in spite of their lack of rock ‘n’ roll fun.
Meloy isn’t a dandy like Wilde but a scholar playacting as one, and he comes off less like a divinely-inspired conduit than a dorky kid who immersed himself in lore and uses it to mediate his interactions with the world (my girlfriend loves him because she’s a history major and he clearly does his research).
“I am a writer, writer of fictions,” Meloy claims on “Engine Driver,” and that’s exactly what he does, but it’s what everyone else does too, the only real difference being Meloy hits the thesaurus and maritime literature a bit harder than most.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM’S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: MARCH 21 – MARCH 27, 2005