The Decemberists at Hammersmith Apollo, 7/11
Colin Meloy prefixes The Decemberists’ gig at Hammersmith Apollo with an admission: “We’ll play some of your favourite songs, songs that changed your lives… and the songs you skip – we’re gonna play those too.”
Initially there are too many of the latter. The harmonica-wielding ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and two lacklustre tracks from this year’s I’ll Be Your Girl comprise a weary opening, perhaps the result of the six-strong band from Portland – “the soviet socialist republic of Cascadia” – being “really jet-lagged”. While third song ‘Make You Better’ matures from the angsty-teen guitar chords of its opening to an open-eyed chorus, it takes ‘Shankill Butchers’ – a cautionary tale of Ulster loyalist slaughtermen set to stabbed strums, scratches and scrapes – to scare away the lethargy.
As promised, favourites follow. ‘The Crane Wife 1 & 2’ (where was Part 3??) flaunts Meloy’s bookish brilliance, weaving together a Japanese folktale with poetic grace. Throughout the frontman is on typically funny form. He brays away in all his nasal glory – revealing little of the vocal strain that forced the band to cancel some of their US dates in June.
Unlike The Decemberists’ 2015 gig at Brixton Academy, which skilfully mixed new and old material, the set has pacing problems. A lumbering hard-rock slog from 2009’s 17-track concept album The Hazards of Love, ‘The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing’ seems an incongruous follow up to ‘The Crane Wife 1 & 2’. ‘We All Die Young’ undercuts ‘Severed”s menacing lacerations of distorted guitar with lumpen twelve-bar-blues and a lame call-and-response that the crowd had to be repeatedly (and humorously) cajoled into joining. Meloy then decides to combine arguably the best song he’s ever written in ‘O Valencia!’ with snippets of “the worst song I’ve ever written”: ‘Dracula’s Daughter’. A tragedy.
As if slightly bashful about their recent dalliance with electronic music, the band wait until late in the set to play I’ll Be Your Girl’s most synth-heavy (and best) tracks. A needling arpeggiator provides a persistent EDM-like loop during lead single ‘Severed’. ‘Once in My Life’ resembles New Order in its grand, stadium-worthy synth burst, while also paying homage to another Manchester band, with Meloy interspersing lyrics from ‘Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want’ over his song’s Smiths-y chords. Though well-performed, both ‘Severed’ and ‘Once In My Life’ might have been better deployed as openers to signal the band’s latest style shift.
The set grows stronger during the encore. Borrowing its narrative from Slavic folklore, ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes’ offers a diptych of sweeping prog-folk, unravelling over glittering piano and cavernous toms, before a mid-song tempo jolt cues jerky, rocky riffing. ‘Ben Franklin’s Song’ supplies a breezy ditty with expletive-ridden lyrics written by Lin-Manuel Miranda for his hip-hop musical Hamilton (the scene was subsequently cut).
Yet customary closer ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ is the tour de force. Involving theatrical gestures, audience participation and a giant inflatable sperm whale, the song relates the interweaving histories of a rake and mariner stuck in the belly of a whale. An incantatory melody by the mariner’s dead mother urges her son to revenge: “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 mother’s motif is then taken up by an accordion that builds into an ever-quickening bloodthirsty frenzy as the mariner “leans in close” and whispers the last words the rake will hear. Over eight minutes of key changes, frequent rhythmic shifts – and now added arpeggiator – the song transitions from jaunty strums to a sickly, swaying sea shanty, while Meloy the logophile throws around words like “roustabout” and “penitent”. It’s a whale of a time.
Featured image: Rob Ball/WireImage.