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Music Review: Decemberists – “Eli, The Barrow Boy”

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Though there is never enough time for all the great songs out there, that doesn’t stop Jerry’s continuing quest to experience them all.

The Portland group, the Decemberists, tend to have a polarizing effect on listeners. Instead of most indie groups today that either choose to paint lush soundscapes of ambient noise or to use distorted guitars hearkening back to garage rock, the Decemberists use of instruments like the harpsichord, dulcimer, and accordion distinguish them among many of their compatriots. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy, influenced by British folk, creates a unique sound as he weaves tales of odd characters often with a nautical theme. Listening to a Decemberists album is like being transported to a 19th-century fishing village where one is sharing a tankard with a grizzled, mysterious old sailor keeping you captive with his odd tales of the sea. The characters in Meloy’s works are bizarre and strange, like Richard Thompson antiheroes (yet even MORE warped) . Such people inhabit the songs of the Decemberists’ third album Picaresque from 2005: an infanta riding an elephant, an engine driver, a revenge-filled mariner stuck in the belly of a whale. Each tale seems stranger than the next.

Perhaps this is one of the challenges facing listeners in enjoying the Decemberists’ music. After all, at the heart of music in general is the ability to understand the feelings elicited in a song (one reason why so many songs are written about love). How can one possibly understand the experiences of the child of a Chinese trapeze artist or of a harbor town prostitute? In addition, with each song on the album more and more grim and bizarre, at times Meloy’s lyrics can seem a bit contrived. Still, among some haters, consider me a big Decemberists fan.

Among these odd scenarios, the tried-and-true themes of loneliness and unrequited love still resonate in many of these songs. “We Both Go Down Together”, for example, tells of the ultimate fate of two lovers from vastly different backgrounds. One of my favorites, “Eli, The Barrow Boy”, is a story of lost love. It is a brief tale compared to many of Meloy’s songs, and much is left to the listener’s imagination. It’s not really too surprising (if you know the Decemberists’ music) that both Eli, a seller of “coal and marigolds”, and his true love end up dead, but we learn nothing about their romance or exact death. Still, in the song’s haunting beauty, we are drawn to Eli, only imagining the depth of his feelings that carry over to his afterlife.

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