The Decemberists – Birmingham Institute

by Elliot Davies

The Decemberists Live in Birmingham 2015

Portland’s finest head to England’s second city, playing to a heaving, sweltering, and impeccably dressed crowd. They belong to you. But did it make you better?

Supporting tonight is Serafina Steer. She sings songs of self-discovery and extra-terrestrial life to a backing of soft beats and a delicately treated harp. We arrive a few songs into her set, and the best spot we can find is beneath a balcony and an extractor fan. She’s all but invisible, and her sounds are all but drowned out. But enough got through to make an impression, and I’ve since been listening extensively to her The Moths are Real album, which has been haunting me for some days now.

We were fortunately able to get quite a good spot for The Decemberists. They began with The Singer Addresses His Audience, a song that builds from humble beginnings into something much bigger, and much louder.

When I first heard that song, I naturally assumed it was about The Decemberists themselves. But really, it could be about any band that successfully manages to build up a dedicated fanbase and an extensive back catalogue. It’s not so much about the dated concept of selling out as it is about the idea that, in order to survive in the long run, bands must change.

So when your bridal processional
is a televised confessional
to the benefits of Axe shampoo
you know we did it for you
We did it all for you

But over the course of seven albums and 15 years, have The Decemberists really changed that much? Certainly, you can track an evolution from their folksy debut, Castaways and Cutouts, to the polished, finely crafted songwriting on their latest, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. But really, The Decemberists have achieved that rarest of qualities: they can play in any style they like and, so long as the songs are being played by The Decemberists, they’ll still sound like The Decemberists.

The Decemberists have a song, unplayed tonight, called I Was Meant For The Stage. It’s a poignant yet defiant exploration of a life lived in the limelight, and it suggests that this band has always had a strong theatrical flair. With this in mind, I would liken the various styles and genres in which The Decemberists have dabbled over the years to theatrical roles. They try on the costumes and adopt the accents but, as is the case with the most beloved of actors, a little of themselves is thrown into every role. No matter what they do, they are always unmistakably The Decemberists.

Tonight, every role The Decemberists have ever played is represented, which means that even though the night is dominated by their latest album, they still offer something of a career-spanning “greatest hits” set. Those who like their folk-revival, narrative songs are given The Legionnaire’s Lament and Los Angeles, I’m Yours to chew on; whilst those who prefer their rootin’ tootin’ Americana are more than catered for with the likes of Down By The Water, Lake Song, and June Hymn.

Me? I like their sprawling song cycles best, a side of The Decemberists that tonight was only represented by a single song. Luckily, that song was The Island, an enormous prog epic in three parts. Part one, Come And See, is all heavy guitars and swampy grooves, seguing beautifully into The Landlord’s Daughter. Rather than the raunchy standard as featured in The Wicker Man, this section sounds like a version of The Fairport Convention that featured Rick Wakeman on keyboards. I realise that, to many, that hypothetical lineup sounds hellish, but few things make me grin wider than extended keyboard solos, so tonight I was in my element.

The final section, You’ll Not Feel The Drowning, is a plaintive acoustic lament, and few bands these days do plaintive acoustic laments better than The Decemberists. Indeed, The Island functioned as something of a condensed sample of the many remarkable things of which The Decemberists are capable. In just 11 minutes, they veered breathlessly from one sound to the next; and though these sounds were ostensibly disparate, they were not jarringly so. They were each recognisably a part of a larger, more cohesive song; just like the various styles of The Decemberists are each recognisably a part of a larger, more cohesive body of work.

A whole set of this more sprawling side of The Decemberists would have been great. Apart from anything else, it would have been nice to hear The Crane Wife in its entirety. But that said, a whole set of any of their styles would have suited me fine. Indeed, taken as a whole, tonight’s show reveals something of a default sound for The Decemberists: They excel at writing timeless earworms of songs, each of which is a whole world unto itself. Without exception, their songs are tightly structured, carefully arranged, and beautifully played.

It’s thanks to this consistency of quality that new songs such as Philomena and Make You Better are almost as warmly received as such fan favourites as O Valencia, and such rare deep cuts as Sleepless, from the fantastic Dark Was The Night compilation.

Certain songs call for audience interaction, at which points the band’s theatrical side is truly allowed to flourish. For The Rake’s Song, singer Colin Meloy successfully arranges a polyrhythmic clap along; and during an extended 16 Military Wives – my personal favourite – the perpetual UK class struggle rears its ugly head. Those on the balcony are asked to singalong in their poshest voices, whilst we unwashed masses, sweltering in the stalls, must respond in our coarsest tones.

Finally, in the second encore of a mammoth two hour set, we get The Mariner’s Revenge Song. This is a long and brutal story of exploitation and a lifelong thirst for revenge, rudely interrupted by a hungry whale who devours an entire ship full of sailors. We, the audience, are tasked with playing the part of the ship’s crew, who are, as the lyrics put it, “chewed alive”. So, when given a signal from guitarist Chris Funk, the entire audience screams in mock terror and agony, as the band make their doomed racket onstage.

This theatrical cacophony almost feels like the work of a different band. And yet, not two songs earlier, the exact same group of musicians had so beautifully evoked an idyllic June’s day. But remember, this is The Decemberists. No matter where their explorations take them, they will always sound like The Decemberists, and their sound is every bit as enriching as a pint of tea on a cold hungover morning.