I like: Colin Meloy [New Section!]

Friday, January 15, 2010 | |

Seeing as I seem to be quite sporadic with my writing posts, I've decided to do a new thing, hooray! I've decided that Autumnal Fuck could do with a dose of non-fiction writing; a section where I highlight people whose words interest and inspire me; writers who make words exciting for me. For my first I Like post, I'd like to highlight the work of lyricist Colin Meloy, whose work is fresh in my mind after seeing him in concert yesterday at Auckland's Big Day Out.

The work of Colin Meloy, lead singer and lyricist for Portland band The Decemberists, has a strangely regular place in my travels around my home country, New Zealand. I was first introduced to Meloy's work with The Decemberists whilst on a drive through New Zealand's Canterbury district. As we wound through the foothills, ridges and valleys that led to the town of Akaroa, Meloy's tales of "Eli, The Barrow Boy" and "The Engine Driver" seemed to fit the setting perfectly. But just before we reached what was to be a quaint but nauseating township, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" piqued my interest.

We are two mariners
Our ship's sole survivors
In this belly of a whale
Its ribs are ceiling beams
Its guts are carpeting
I guess we have some time to kill

You may not remember me
I was a child of three
And you, a lad of eighteen
But, I remember you
And I will relate to you
How our histories interweave

The almost nine-minute song is narrated by a mariner, who, having found himself in the stomach of a whale with a fellow seafarer, seeks to explain the events leading up to what can only be their tragic end. He tells the story of his mother, who fell in love with a gambling love-cheat who leaves her with tuberculosis and a mountain of debt. On her deathbed, the mother relays her dying wish to her son:

"Find him, bind him
Tie him to a pole and break
His fingers to splinters
Drag him to a hole until he
Wakes up naked
Clawing at the ceiling
Of his grave"

The rest of the story spans fifteen years - the narrator becomes a street urchin, then a cleaner at a priory. He is later tipped off that subject of his revenge is working as a ship's captain; he goes to sea to find him, only to swallowed whole by a giant whale. Luckily the ship's captain also survives to hear the tale, and the song ends with what we can only assume is the mariner dishing out an untimely end, before his own untimely end. I spent the better half of the song asking questions of my travel companion ("So they're in a whale?" "What does consumptive mean?" "What's a prior?" "What's a penitent whaler?") and was surprised I didn't meet my own untimely end in the process.

For me, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" was a perfect entry-level track to both the band's instrumentation and my understanding of Meloy's lyricism. Meloy's exquisite storytelling, combined with the lush sounds of accordion, mandolin, upright bass and xylophone, have painted many a curious picture since then, and Picaresque, the 2005 studio album that contained "The Mariner's Revenge Song", quickly became one of my favourite albums (and continues to be).

The second leg of my Tour De Meloy came just last easter, on a similar trip - this time through the winding coastal road between Thames and Coromandel Town. Through the thick pohutukawa trees that made up the many glades of the route, the sounds of The Crane Wife could be heard escaping from the speakers of my small Toyota.

And under the boughs unbowed
All clothed in a snowy shroud
She had no heart so hardened
All under the boughs unbowed

Each feather it fell from skin
'Till thread bare while she grew thin
How were my eyes so blinded?
Each feather it fell from skin

(From "The Crane Wife 3")

Interspersed between songs, my companion told me the story of the crane wife, which Colin Meloy explained to NPR in 2007 as:

"...a story about a peasant in rural Japan who finds a wounded crane on an evening walk; there's an arrow in its wing. He revives the crane and the crane flies away. A couple days later, a mysterious woman shows up at his door and he takes her in. Eventually they fall in love and get married. But they're very poor, so she suggests that she start weaving this cloth which he can in turn sell at the market—the condition being that when she's weaving it, she has to do it behind closed doors and he can't look in. So this goes on for a while and they actually become kind of wealthy. But eventually, his curiosity gets the best of him and he looks in at her while she's weaving and it turns out that she's a crane and she's been pulling feathers from her wings and putting it into the cloth, which is what makes it so beautiful. But him having seen her breaks the spell, and she turns back into a crane and flies away. That's the end."

I remember marvelling at both the story itself, and Meloy's interpretation of it. I thought to myself, "Where would I find similar inspiration for my writing? How would I use it?" I quickly (and quite self-indulgently) collated these Driving-With-Decemberists stories down into a little autobiographical piece that you can find in older posts. Or here.

Later in the year, whilst travelling the States, my iPod sent out another signal - shuffling to a track from 2009 Decemberists release The Hazards Of Love whilst on a train. A train to home of The Decemberists: Portland, Oregon. Earlier in the train ride, my travelling companion and I met a couple from New Zealand, who told us tales of their son's coffee roasting adventures, and a boy called Owen, who spent much of our time on the train poking faces at me from the seat in front, and singing songs he'd made up about trees and dinosaurs and characters on Yo Gabba Gabba. But as soon as the tense tale of "The Bower Scene" unfolded in my ears, I was reminded of my own questioning after hearing "The Crane Wife 3". Where would I find similar inspiration for my writing? Everywhere. And how would I use it? In any way I could.

The main lesson I learned from listening to The Decemberists is one of storytelling. How you don't have to re-tell one's experiences in an encyclopedic - or even factual - fashion for it to be interesting to a reader (or listener). Take "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist", one of The Decemberists' first tracks, found on 5 Songs, for instance. Meloy penned the track after a "super, super intense" three-day river trip with his family. In 2005, he told The Stranger, "I came off that trip with this loathing for my family... and I wrote a song about basically completely re-creating the family in this really fantastical setting, using myself as this sort of sad anti-hero."

"So my parents had me
To the disgust of the prostitutes
On a bed in a brothel
Surprisingly raised with tender care
Until the money got tight
And they bet me away
To a blind brigadier in a game
Of high stakes canasta
But he made me a sailor
On his brigadier ship fleet
I know every yardarm
From main mast to jib sheet
But sometimes I long to be landlocked
And to work in a bakery"

After four years of Meloy fascination, I think I've learned that when it comes to story-telling (and indeed blog entries about Portland-based lyricists) - you don't have to tell it all, you don't have to tell it order... heck, you don't even have to tell it right - you've just got to tell it well.


Aimee said...

Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Hannah JV said...

Before they even came on stage, I said to the group I was with - "betcha can't spot Aimee's boyfriend when he comes on".

You should move to Portland - the Aimee's boyfriend odds are pretty high there. It's like every guy is issued with spectacles, a beard and a checkered shirt upon arrival (by womb or otherwise).

0 said...

I love Colin Meloy. His lyrics are always beautiful, inventive stories. He's not too hard on the eyes either.

Hannah JV said...

Just yesterday my friends and I were discussing the "Portland Lumberjack Look", and decided that we didn't want to date _actual_ lumberjacks, but "guys who play in bands who _look_ like they could be lumberjacks". Sunday conversations are never intellectual...