June 23, 2009
Whatever Colin Meloy thought he was doing when he formed the Decemberists at the beginning of the decade, the singer-songwriter-guitarist never envisioned a contract with the Beatles’ record label and a sellout show at the Hollywood Bowl. Yet his Portland-based quintet won both, joining forces with Capitol Records in 2006 and performing at the historic venue (accompanied by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, no less) the following year—seemingly without a shred of compromise. More than any “underground” group since Radiohead, success found them. Which isn’t to say that Meloy—a rotund, bespectacled creative-writing major—lacks ambition; indeed, the ambitious scope of his songs is what made mass acceptance seem unlikely. True to his education, Meloy produces complex, often meandering songs that are as likely to be influenced by classical literature and romantic poetry as by cult pop artists Morrissey and Robyn Hitchcock. And as the Decemberists’ audience has grown, so too has Meloy’s desire to test fans. The Hazards of Love, the band’s fifth album, is its most audacious: an hour-long, 17-track narrative inspired by folksongs and fairy tales that he recently admitted was “initially conceived as a musical.” Peppered with shocking sonic detours (from a shredding guitar solo to earnest harpsichord poking), it may transport you back to the golden age of 1970s progressive rock (think Jethro Tull or Peter Gabriel-era Genesis). Which explains why you’ll see a few greybeards among the auburn hipsters at the Vogue.