Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.

The Dublin stage was dark. Decemberists fans were crowded up against it. No doubt some were eager to hear favorite songs: something from The Crane Wife or The Hazards of Love. Maybe they wanted to go all the way back to the early days of Picaresque. Perhaps some showed up just for the cool factor that comes from their having been funny on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

And then out walked lead singer Colin Meloy alone. He slung on his guitar, and he sang these lines:

We know, we know, we belong to you
We know you built your life around us
In the hopes we wouldn’t change.
But we had to change some . . . 

In this song, Meloy might be telling the truth. The Decemberists have a loyal and enthusiastic following greater than anybody had reason to anticipate, considering how unusual they are—committed to their muses, following the art and spirit of songcraft, storytelling, poetry, and musicianship.

You don’t listen to the Decemberists the way you listen to pop stars—they’re not here to move your feet, influence your fashion, or become a brand. They want your imagination to come alive, navigating the wild seas of mythological, historical, musical, and literary allusions that inspire them.

You don’t listen to them the way you listen to Kanye West—they’re not in this to broadcast their egos and constantly insist that they’re the best at what they do. They have more of an MJ attitude: They just do it . . . and then refrain from congratulating themselves in their own lyrics.

The Decemberists are not U2, R.E.M., or Arcade Fire: They’re not looking for the spiritual anthem that brings the world together. They don’t drape themselves in political causes and angry picket signs either. They let their freak flag fly even if it offends everybody. They’re more like Homeric heroes on questing ships with treasure chests down in the hold, chests full of hardbound classics and fairy tale storybooks. Expect the unexpected.

And the unexpected is what we get when What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World begins with “A Singer Addresses His Audience.”

Are the Decemberists, in this song, showing some signs of aggravation with pressures applied to them by their audience or the industry? Is Meloy being sarcastic in those opening lines? It’s tricky: He could be apologizing honestly, saying “We love you, and we know you love what we’ve done in the past—but we just can’t deliver what you want.” Or he could be exasperated: “We know, we belong to you” could be a snarky way of saying “Who do you think you are?

There’s a third possibility, of course: This could be just another story. Meloy has said in interviews that he was creating a character: A singer in an inexperienced boy band who, finding success faster and bigger than he’d anticipated, is a bit rattled by the power of audience expectations.

Money makes artists and their managers both happy, but what’s an artist to do when the prospect of more money depends on giving audiences what they want? Are they responsible to deliver for the fan base that boosted them to success and gave a sense of belonging? Or are they instead responsible to the muse that brought them an audience in the first place, and that might just lead them off to become a voice crying in the lonely wilderness?

Something that sounds very tongue-in-cheek comes next:

We’re aware that you cut your hair
In a style that our drummer wore
In the video.
But with fame came a mountain claimed
For the evermore . . .

Sounds to me like an artist declaring no allegiance to listeners who are focused only on surface details, patiently reminding them that the real call is to be true to a vision, to climb a mountain toward something timeless rather than trendy.

Any artist who wins any measure of popularity will encounter fans that get jazzed by their sound or their style but fail to understand what’s at the heart of it all. They like the miracles, but they miss the message. Many listen to “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen and embrace it as inspirational—without hearing that those lyrics represent a character who, rightfully objecting to cultural restrictions, reacts in an immature and destructive way, casting off all rules and setting in motion events that will do damage to her entire world.

In the same way, someone can watch Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and decide it’s cool to go on a shooting spree, completely missing that the movie’s Bonnie and Clyde are monsters—and, worse, they’re monsters who will almost inevitably rise in reaction to a toxic commercial culture that seeks to conceal its compromises and corruption with constant entertainment.

I ran into a small taste of this myself when some readers of my obscure series of fantasy novels sent angry emails and posted angry Amazon reviews about climactic scenes in the final volume, The Ale Boy’s Feast. Granted, my conclusion runs contrary to conventional fantasy-epic finales, frustrates expectations, and leaves some big questions unanswered. My writing may or may not be any good, but the events of the conclusion fulfill promises that have been present throughout the series. The Auralia Thread is a story about characters learning to cast off fears of the unknown, to live in a state of meaningful risk, and to cultivate faith in spite of uncertainty. Because that is the artist’s way: to seek growth, revelation, transformation, and joy. To make all things new. But no—it seems a lot of readers would have preferred a climactic battle in which good guys conquer all bad guys and resolve all lingering questions. (Oh well. My audience is never likely to be large enough for me to have to worry about mobs with torches.)

Art gets and holds our attention by having a life of its own. Truth and beauty are revealed in art by the faithful service of open-minded, courageous artists—The Decemberists included—who devote themselves to capturing a vision bigger than themselves.

Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” is my favorite song on this subject: a fierce evisceration of a critic who cannot tolerate, control, or own the mysterious nature of art:

. . . Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Here’s a spectacular take on that song from Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There, featuring Cate Blanchett and Steven Malkmus. Fusing her body and his voice to recreate Bob Dylan, they confound an ignorant critic (Bruce Greenwood) who sees art as threatening to his narrow definitions and his illusions of control.

Of course, U2 drew the ire of old fans when they recorded . . .

  • The Unforgettable Fire (It didn’t have the militant, searing, punk-rock feel of War.)
  • The Joshua Tree (Fans didn’t like how fast the audience was growing or how big the hits were becoming, and they wanted to maintain that sense of ownership.)
  • Achtung Baby (Now considered to be the band’s masterpiece, it offended listeners who wanted The Joshua Tree Part 2. And it scared some evangelical Christian fans who didn’t like these dark songs saturated in sex, rage, excess, and the testimony of Judas Iscariot.)
  • Zooropa (When Bono appeared on stage wearing devil horns, playing a character called MacPhisto, they thought hell had claimed U2. But MacPhisto was three things: a self-effacing personification of Bono’s own egomaniacal instincts; a way to poke fun at fans who thought the band was selling out to “the Enemy”; and, above all, a demon inspired by C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters who inadvertently exposes Satan’s lies and becomes an oblivious clown.)
  • Pop (The unexpected techno sound kept fans from appreciating the complexity in the lyrics, and some of the band’s strongest melodies.)
  • [Insert the title of any album they’ve made since then.]

I raised the question on Facebook: What are your favorite “talk-back” songs, in which artists respond to the demands of their audiences and critics? You can read the long, long list of great songs that readers submitted here.

My favorite reply in that thread came from musician Martin Stillion, who nominated Dmitri Shostakovich for his Symphony No. 5.

Under pressure from the reigning party to trumpet socialist ideals, Shostakovich had to “somehow turn the simplicity demanded by the authorities into a virtue, mocking it whilst in the process of turning it into great art.” (That’s a Wikipedia summary, but a good one.) While his supporters who offended the authorities were arrested and even executed, his career—and, likely, his life—depended on delivering what was demanded of him. The result was a symphony that was accepted by the authorities, who heard what they wanted to hear; but it was also a symphony within which attentive listeners could hear an acknowledgment of Stalin’s oppression.

And that’s how we can draw a direct line between the life-and-death struggle of Shostakovitch, the righteous anger of Bob Dylan, the affectionate argument offered by The Decemberists . . . and the humor of Andy Gullahorn.

You’ve never heard of Andy Gullahorn?

That’s the thing: When we allow our attention to shift from the source of artists’ inspiration, we put too much pressure on them, and we create superficial idols for ourselves—idols bound to disappoint. But when we realize that beauty comes through artists instead of from them, we raise a sail to a Spirit of creativity and conscience that can blow through anyone, from anywhere . . . even ourselves. How good it is “to belong, to belong, to belong” to something so grand.

Okay, Decemberists — play it again!


7 Comments

  1. This is great stuff. Later in the Decemberists record, “Anti-Summersong” hits some of the same points. That idea that they’re an evolving band and that’s just gonna have to be ok with everyone. Makes me wonder what’s coming after this record.

    “m not going on
    Just to sing another singalong suicide song
    So long (see ya later), farewell
    Don’t everybody fall all over themselves
    So, don’t everybody fall all over themselves”

    1. Thanks, John! To me, evolving bands and artists are the most interesting bands and artists. That’s why I’ve stayed faithful to Bob Dylan, U2, and so many bands through many ups and downs. If you’re not risking something by trying new things, you’re not likely to discover anything unfamiliar.

  2. I love “A Singer Addresses His Audience!” I just recently started listening to the Decemberists after seeing their “YouTube comments songs” on Jimmy Kimmel – and I don’t even watch Jimmy Kimmel! (Still not sure how it came my way, but I’m glad it did!) I’ve been listening to “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” a lot since then, as well their earlier stuff. Very clever songwriting, very skilled musicians.

    I keep kicking myself that I find these great bands years after they started. Sure it’s great to listen to a bunch of albums at once, but I missed out on years of enjoyment! (Looking at you, Elbow!) Late to the party will be on my tombstone.

  3. Awesome. I feel like this album, after a hiatus from recording together, is like an interesting mash-up of musical styles we’re all used to from the Decemberists, but then culminates in a hint of where they might be at looking ahead. The song 12/17/12 makes direct reference to God as creator…. “Oh my God, what a terrible world, what a beautiful world you have made here” in the context of Colin Meloy reflecting on beauty and being grateful for his family (wife Carson Ellis and his kids Hank and Milo Cannonball Miloy (“this cannonball in the bosom of your belly”), even in the wake of the terror of the Sandy Hook shootings.

    Then topped off by “A Beginning Song” which actually inspires me to worship with every listen. I’ve even chatted with the worship director at my church about this (he’s also a Decemberists fan). The reflective lyrics encourage the listener to pay attention to our surroundings and fully live in them, all leading to a final refrain to a “bright light all around me.” If this is where their gaze is directed as a band, I’m eager for what comes next.

  4. A couple of further examples from the world of classical music:

    Most people recognize Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia as a work of Finnish nationalism (or, if they don’t, they should have figured it out from the title). What they might not know is that it was written while Finland was under Russian control, in response to a specific episode of Russia curtailing the rights of Finns.

    During WWII, many accomplished Jewish musicians were imprisoned at a particular concentration camp: Terezin, in the Czech Republic. They performed for each other as well as for the Germans, but one particular instance stands out: Verdi’s Requiem, performed in front of a room full of Nazi officers, just before most of the singers were put on trains and shipped to other camps: places like Auschwitz, where many of course did not survive.

    Rafael Schächter, conductor of the Terezin chorus, translated the Latin text into Czech, making the work a political as well as a religious statement. Joe Bendel writes: “Rife with prophesies of judgment from above, Verdi’s opus is not just a requiem. It became a J’Accuse—an indictment of the National Socialist crimes so bold, only the International Red Cross inspectors could miss its significance.”

    The whole endeavor is described in a documentary film, Defiant Requiem, which is well worth your time: http://video.pbs.org/video/2359070839/

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