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Weird Science

The Decemberists elevate musical obscurity to an art form.


Colin Meloy was not a normal boy.

He loved books -- Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Piers Anthony -- and had a rather unsettling fascination with ax murderers. A 7-year-old Meloy wrote, directed and starred in his own play, The Bloody Knight, which he describes as "basically a half-hour bloodbath set in the Middle Ages."

In junior high, Meloy preferred the Replacements to Metallica, preferred anything, in fact, to the reality of life growing up in Helena, Montana. He found comfort in history, cloaked himself in fantasy. Then he grew up, started a band called the Decemberists and re-leased albums such as Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists and The Tain (the last an EP), which have given life to one of folk-pop's more unusual shadow plays.

The ragtag cast carrying the plot includes an orphaned chimney sweep and infantrymen who find life in death's whisper. There is the masturbating teen spying on his neighbor. There's the dead infant quaking in her grave. The mostly acoustic songs are hummable and harmonic, but they also are haunted, blood-spattered things, poetic and strange.

But it's not all Dickensian. There are love songs, too, and nonsense bits. But throughout Meloy's albums, the characters speak across generations. They offer tales of violence and fear, heartache and longing. And while their settings are of another era, their messages are timeless.

"I'm a bit of a recluse and a homebody by nature," says Meloy, speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon. "A lot of it is me living vicariously through these characters. It's fun to write with them, because they have more adventures than I have."

Meloy has written songs and played guitar since he was 14, but he never intended to be a musician.

"I told everyone I was going to be a writer when I grew up," he says. He recently published a 100-page book about the Replacements' Let It Be. "It's basically a memoir about growing up, about being in Montana and feeling alienated and how that record spoke to me."

Meloy earned a degree in creative writing at the University of Montana but grew disillusioned by his professors' insistence on short sentences and concrete imagery. He found he could fold his wild-eyed literary leanings into music and has since become one of pop music's most bookish lyricists, creating songs brimming with allusions and narrative.

"All through high school and college, a lot of what I wrote was about girls and breakups and romantic highs and lows," he says. "I think I just wrote it out of me. Those elements are in the songs, but I just took a different tack. If it is going to be a love song -- and I think romantic songs have an important place -- I just try a different take on it."

Consider "Red Right Ankle," about Meloy's girlfriend, Carson (whose artwork adorns both albums). This is the story of your red right ankle/And how it came to meet your leg/And how the muscle, bone and sinews tangle/And how the skin was softly shed. It's a softly strummed song about the pain and beauty of a union, but it's also oblique, even gruesome. Why is the ankle red? Is it bloody? A birthmark? Turns out Carson merely has red freckles on her ankles. (Sometimes art is best left unexplained.)

The boisterous "Billy Liar" borrows scenes from one of Meloy's favorite books, Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood, which details the lives of 53 characters in a Welsh village.

"It's one of those books that I read three or four times a year," he says. "It's been a strong influence on me in terms of just using language -- alliteration and consonance and onomatopoeia and fusing them into songwriting, which is maybe something people aren't as willing to take risks with for fear of being a bit too weird."

But Meloy wears his weirdness like a tattoo.

There are the instruments he chooses -- theremin, accordion, glockenspiel and Dobro. And there's his voice, a nasal tenor that has been likened to both a weathered Englishman and Arnold Horshack of Welcome Back, Kotter.

In fact, Colin Meloy is so weird that the only comparison critics seem to agree upon is to another pop music anomaly, Jeff Mangum. In 1998, working under the moniker Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum released the singular In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and garnered almost unanimous critical praise, only to disappear entirely. The Decemberists share an undeniable sensibility with Mangum, but the comparison has also dogged the band.

"The first review mentioned it [Neutral Milk Hotel], and it sort of spread like wildfire from there," Meloy says. "I also think some people really wanted somebody to come up and take Neutral Milk Hotel's place, because there's been an absence there. It's definitely been an influence, but I think what we do is pretty different ... I'm borrowing as much from Robyn Hitchcock and the Pogues."

And whereas Neutral Milk Hotel slathered lyrics in metaphor and alternate realities -- tales of two-headed boys and the king of carrot flowers -- Meloy's work simply hearkens back a century or two. He sings of dungarees and petticoats, legionnaires and revolutionaries. They are theatrical songs, with a dash of the slap-happy show tune.

"I'm a huge Sondheim fan. Closeted," Meloy admits. "Into the Woods is one of my favorite musicals. I grew up involved with the community theater, and as far as storytelling goes, musical theater is where that is done and done well."

In the epic, seven-minute "I Was Meant for the Stage," Meloy sings of the poor sap who can't forfeit the spotlight: I was meant for applause/I was meant for derision/ Nothing short of faded self has affected my decision.

"That song is totally about me," Meloy says. "I adore playing live."

He doesn't, however, always adore being on the road.

"I have sort of a love-hate relationship with touring. I always feel like it's basically 22 and a half hours of grueling tedium and an hour and a half of excitement."

But Meloy will have to be content with the traveling life. Finally, his world will resemble the ramshackle nomads he champions, all fingernail dirt and glory.

"It's true," he says. "When you're on tour, you feel like a total vagabond."

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