Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Decemberists Get LOST On "The Island"

This is the story of an island. This is the story of strangers thrust together by circumstance. This is story of violence and savagery at the last corner of the civilized world.

Am I talking about ABC's mega-hit series, LOST?

No, I'm talking about The Decemberists' incredible twelve minute opus, "The Island," off their brand new album, The Crane Wife. Ths song is broken up into three sections, a lesson learned from their 2004 EP, The Tain,a single twenty-minute track broken into a loose 4 part structure. The three sections of "The Island" are titled, "Come and See / The Landlord's Daughter/ You'll Not Feel The Drowning."

Come and See starts with a wordless two-minute musical prolouge that speaks volumes. It's a heavy-metal-inspired prog-rock statement that becomes a shout that becomes a scream. Close your eyes and you can almost see the pictures painted. An old-fashioned ship on a calm ocean. Swaggering sailors studying the sea. A roaring bassline bemoans a coming storm. And then things get weird.

The Decemberists have gotten very good at what they do. Their proggy influences are a new thing, notable from The Tain, yet infused with their preqrequiste nautical obsessions, this musical barrage says tons without actually saying anything. In 2005's Picaresque LP, their other big sea-shanty opus, "The Mariner's Revenge," was replete with things that go ding-ding and other things that make wave and crashing sounds. None of that here, it's all classic instrumentation played with the quirky irrevence we (all?) love from The Decemberists.

Finally, Colin Meloy's voice comes in at around the two and a half minute mark. His first words, "There's an island hidden in the sound," sound like smoke wrapping around a pillar, all sultry vowels and bright-eyed wonder. But before a third line is spoke, it gets all dark again when Meloy sings, "Affix your barb and bayonet," which also foreshadows violence ahead. (Much like when Sawyer and Kate found the case with all those guns.)

Soon after arriving on the Island, Meloy's characters find an abandoned harbor "in the reeds." There's a jetty and the bodies of some dead birds, but there's no evidence of human life. Much like some other group of quasi-invisible neighbors, they cover their tracks well.

The first section chorus kicks off soon after, with a rousing romp of screeching guitars, roaring accordions, and blasting drums. The Decemberists, who I use to like to think of my own personal little band, have definitely matured. Their emotional punch on these high notes is so perfectly pulled off, it's a testament to their skills and their producers. The final lines of the chorus, "We'll not go home again," hints at the impending doom so evident in the faces of those LOST characters, especially in the beginning, when their situation seemed hopeless and alone.

Meloy repeats the lines, "Come and see," often in the first section, sounding a little like one of those tourist-targeted ads for Aruba or Bermuda. One of those beautiful places... if you can forget about all the random dispearing blondes.

The Landlord's Daughterintroduces a first person perspective to the narrative, a lone sailor coming up on a girl referred to as The Landlord's Daughter, (perhaps a native?) The music takes on an almost gypsy ryhtym powered by accordion and piano. He approaches her menacingly, a human-shaped dark cloud, and sings, "Make no whistle or thou will be murdered!"

The caterwaul of the earlier chorus joins the accordion chimes and the song almost explodes in symphonic violence. A chase! A fight!

Laser-sounds straight out of scifi metal come out and join the swelling wave of music. Much like in Picaresque other non-sea-inspired epic track, "The Bagman's Gambit," The Decemberists ultra-musical moments reach almost abstract heights, but where in that track an ear-splitting minute-long noisefest engulfed the climax of the song, here, the song just breaks leaving tense silence and replaced by a gorgeous guitar riff.

The lone guitar strums purposefully as it was the last person or thing in the world on some important mission.

Another voice picks up in the third section. Though the same "I" is used, it's obviously not the same brute that attacked and killed (?) the girl. Through disturbing lyrics, often sincere but also sinister, Meloy sings, "Go to sleep now, little ugly, go to sleep now, you little fool," we're left with a sense of lingering unease, as if we ourselves were trapped on some island somewhere where anything can happen.