The Time Meloy Was Menacing

A few days ago over at Stereogum, that home of lists, listicles and slideshows, there was a piece about the top ten Decemberists songs. One assumes the list comes as the steady stream of Top Ten of Whomever well begins to dry up, since it’s not like those people were ever especially popular with anyone who didn’t own cardigans.

Me? I own a cardigan and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for some of their music. I won’t defend how overly-wordy Colin Meloy gets and I’ll admit I think The King is Dead is hot trash, to my ears sounding derivative of R.E.M. but without any of the fun. And that’s probably the one Decemberists album anyone knows. It’s certainly the only time I’ve heard them on the radio.

The list is, as lists usually are, completely wrong. I’m not going to bore you by listing my personal top ten – I don’t even think I have one – but I’ll point out a glaring omission: The Rake’s Song, off 2009’s The Hazards of Love. That album’s a bit of a mess, too, but for about three minutes, Meloy managed to pull off the near impossible: sound menacing.

Told in the first person, The Rake’s Song is a gothic fiction along the lines of Wapole’s Otranto or Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udelpho. The narrator gets married young to a lady he wants to fuck; a rake was a person who used to sleep around with unmarried women. “No more a rake and no more a batchelor,” he says, more concerned with his social standing than anything resembling a relationship. It’s worth noting he never once actually describes his bride, let alone gives her a name.

Almost immediately, the wife starts having kids, or as the narrator puts it, “her womb started spitting out babies,” spoken with a sense of disgust. He was probably a shitty husband, barely remembering anything about his kids (only the first gets any kind of identifying figure) and doesn’t seem too torn up when his wife dies in childbirth. Hell, for him it’s an excuse to start all over again: “All that I wanted was the freedom of a new life / So my burden I began to divest.”

He goes on a brutal child-killing spree, poisoning one, drowning another. When his oldest resists, he burns him alive. He punctuates each act of murder with a shout of Alright! and speaks in a tone like you or I would talk about the weather. By song’s end, the husband’s killed off his family and is living “easy and free,” unbothered by his crimes.

On the album, a concept album, Meloy’s written something of an overwrought story. The Rake’s the villain and (spoiler!) his children come back as ghosts and blah blah, nobody really cares. Christgau said it best when he said “His plot is so preposterous and unempathetic it’s more the appearance of a plot, or an elaborate joke about a plot.” But the failings of that album are beside the point here: for once in his career, Meloy – the tweedy, professorial-looking wordsmith of indie rock – was able to finally hide behind one of his songs. The Rake’s Song was three minutes of menace, the casual boasting of a serial killer. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from Tom Waits or The Band, not the guy who sang a love song about Valerie Plame.

How it didn’t make the list is beyond me; it’s certainly the only song I’d want to hear Waits cover. And if that’s not a measure for a Top Ten Songs list, I dunno what is.




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