The Decemberists and the Tale of the Tale

I’ve talked about music once  before on this blog, but today I’d like to talk about some music in particular. I want to talk about one specific band: why I enjoy them, and the lesson that I’ve learned from their music.

I’m talking about the Decemberists. Have you listened to them? They’re fucking ace.

It’s funny; I got a Decemberists CD from a friend some years ago, back in the ancient days of high schooling. It was Her Majesty the Decemberists, I do believe, and–well… I didn’t like it. That’s right. I thought it was pretty boring. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll recall that I once mentioned that I don’t typically listen to music for the lyrics. I’m usually all about the music itself unless it’s something like hip-hop, for which the focus is much more obviously placed on the lyrical content. For me, lyrics were all about having something slightly coherent for the melody to sit on top of.

Well, I’ve very recently started appreciating lyrics more, and it’s all thanks to the Decemberists. Why? Well, when it does come down to lyrics, the Decemberists write almost exclusively one of my favorite varieties of song. That is, they write story-songs. Their catalog is lousy with the things. There’s a song retelling Shakespeare’s tempest. There are fairy tales about a man who transforms into a fawn by day and falls in love with a forbidden young maiden. There are tunes about all manner of events historical and fictional, realistic and fantastic. And holy shit, do I appreciate that.

Story songs are something that has fallen out of favor in modern music for the most part, and I think that’s a shame. Songs used to be all about storytelling, you know. There are plenty of well known traditional examples to prove this. The Railroad Boy, Whiskey in the Jar, Greensleeves… American folk music is also filled with story-songs. So why have they gone out of fashion?

Well, normally I’d answer that apparently rhetorical question in the next paragraph. But the truth is, I don’t know. Songs about abstract concepts and boring love songs seem to be more popular these days. Even old-school dancing tunes, when they did have lyrics, were usually stories. Nowadays they’re usually about… I don’t know, dancing? They seem to even be about dance songs. You know, that seems pretty meta now that I think about it. Like a movie about the making of the movie itself. Or a TV show in which the main character writes the script for the next episode. Whoa… This is turning into some stoner shit right here.

The thing is, story songs have probably fallen out of favor because people focus less on the lyrics of music than they used to. Even the Beatles, man. The Beatles were an amazing and influential group, but let’s be honest–a lot of their lyrics were complete and utter balls. Mostly vapid love songs. One of the best songs lyrically is Eleanor Rigby, because it tells a tale. And even that is a bit abstract. You get the idea that some of the lyrics are less metaphorical and more, well… malarchy. And the idea that lyrics should get more appreciation makes me rethink my previous feelings about music. Sure, I still do like the sound of music alone. But the lyrics aren’t just there as fluff. They shouldn’t be, I mean. As stupid as it sounds, lyrics should speak to the listener. And they usually don’t. When is the last time you heard a Kesha song (I refuse to write a dollar sign in place of the “s”) and thought to yourself, “Yeah! She’s right! This place is about to blow!” Exactly. What happened to our musical tastes that we accept that kind of shit as lyrics? It’s empty, meaningless… It’s Kesha, God damnit.

The stories that the Decemberists tell aren’t all the sort of realistic tales that I like to write in the form of prose. Some are dark, some are uplifting… but nearly all of them, even the love songs, tell a tale of some kind. There is something about the sweetness of a touching melody that allows even a simple story to move us. The perfect high note can make that pleading cry for love that much more touching. The heart-wrenching dissonance of two distorted guitar tones fighting to overcome each other can help drive the accompanying lyrics into your heart and your mind to stay. They don’t have to be complex lyrics, you see, because they have the music to help them, and music speaks to people in a way that words alone cannot. So why has popular music been largely unable to tell even simple stories in what seems like such a long time? Maybe storytellers are just being driven underground, I don’t know.

I appreciate story songs for another reason. As a would-be writer of music (I dabble), I find them easier to write. Thinking of melodies is hard. But sometimes the melody will just find your song after you’ve got some words for it to cling to. The natural rhythm of words works that way. Whenever I’d think of a melody first and then try to stick some words on it, they were utter shit. They still usually are. All vague ideas and empty “messages.”

The point is, I wish that songwriting would follow the tack of the Decemberists and lean back towards storytelling. It’s not as if the concept is inapplicable in modern music. Nas did it, and that’s why he kicks so much ass, or used to, anyway. Don’t you even dare tell me that Nas didn’t used to kick ass. Shut your mouth.

We all like stories, is what I’m saying. In any case, aren’t you tired of hearing autotuned party-boppers tell you what a club looks like? I sure as hell am. Bring back the stories, man. It’s time for a revival.

Peace, friends.

 

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