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Psycho Killers: The Decemberists Death Count

March 16, 2009  |  12:00pm
Psycho Killers: The Decemberists Death Count
Colin Meloy has some blood on his hands. Throughout the 76 songs that comprise his band's primary catalog, The Decemberists frontman and songwriter has killed upwards of 70 characters of his own creation. That averages out to about 0.92 deaths per track—but doesn't even include the hundreds of nameless, faceless dead sailors his songs are prone to mention in passing, or the thousands of historical characters whose slaughter he alludes to but can't quite be held responsible for.

The Decemberists release their new album, The Hazards of Love, this week on iTunes and everywhere else next week. It's a 17-track "folk opera" that also happens to be their second-deadliest record to date (body count: eight). “It's obvious that it's theatre," Meloy says of his tunes' brutality. "If you were to do a body count in folk songs—[like] 'Nottamun Town,' you know—people die left and right. That's the tradition that we're working from." Paste's upcoming May/June issue will have more on the band and its most strangely beautiful album to date, but here's something to hold you over: a track-by-track breakdown of all the various demises Meloy has wrought upon his weird, wonderful lyrical world. (Scroll down to enjoy a playlist of the top nine deadliest songs while you peruse the count.)

A note: Only officially-released collections of original Decemberists material were considered for this count. All B-sides, exclusive bonus tracks, one-off recordings, covers, etc. were excluded. Only the deaths of Meloy's own original characters are tallied here; the deaths of all preexisting characters and historical figures are noted and discussed in the Appendix below. Meloy himself was kind enough to double-check my research and make a few notes of his own, which are included where applicable or interesting.

Album

Song

Victim

Cause

Total

5 Songs EP (2001)

"Oceanside" *





"Shiny"





"My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist"





"Angel, Won't You Call Me?"





"I Don't Mind"

Julie

suicide

1



mother

abandoned

1


"The Apology Song"




Castaways & Cutouts (2002)

"Leslie Anne Levine"

mother

childbirth

1



Leslie

premature birth

1



chimney sweep

stuck in chimney

1


"Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect"





"July, July!"

uncle

shot

1


"A Cautionary Song"





"Odalisque"





"Cocoon"





"Grace Cathedral Hill"





"The Legionnaire's Lament"





"Clementine"





"California One / Youth & Beauty Brigade"




Her Majesty (2003)

"Shanty For The Arethusa"

sailors

unspecified

 


"Billy Liar"





"Los Angeles, I'm Yours"





"The Gymnast, High Above the Ground"





"The Bachelor And The Bride" #

“our first daughter”

unspecified (laid to rest in water)

1


"Song For Myla Goldberg"





"The Soldiering Life"





"Red Right Ankle"

uncle

unspecified

1


"The Chimbley Sweep"

woman's husband

unspecified

1


"I Was Meant For The Stage"





"As I Rise"




The Tain EP (2005)

"Part I"





"Part II"





"Part III"





"Part IV"





"Part V"

chaplain

beaten

1

Picaresque (2005)

"The Infanta"





"We Both Go Down Together"

couple

suicide

2


"Eli, The Barrow Boy"

Eli's love

unspecified

1



Eli

drowned

1


"The Sporting Life"





"The Bagman's Gambit"

“plainclothes man”

shot

1


"From My Own True Love"

“true love”

drowned

1


"16 Military Wives"

“company men”

war (unspecified)

5



“military wives”

cannibalism

16



“celebrity minds”

cannibalism

15


"The Engine Driver"





"On The Bus Mall"





"The Mariner's Revenge Song" §

father

unspecified

1



mother

consumption

1



crew of two ships

eaten by whale




"Of Angels And Angles"




Picaresquieties EP (2005)

"Bandit Queen"





"Constantinople"

lover

drowned

1


"Kingdom of Spain"




The Crane Wife (2006)

"The Crane Wife 3"





"The Island"

“little ugly”

unspecified (laid to rest in water)

1


"Yankee Bayonet"

soldier

war (unspecified) 

1


"O Valencia!"

Valencia

shot

1


"The Perfect Crime #2"

“the wrong guy”

shot

1



“well-dressed man”

shot

1


"When The War Came"





"Shankill Butchers" ◊ 





"Summersong"

sailors

drowned



"The Crane Wife 1 & 2"





"Sons & Daughters"




Always the Bridesmaid EP (2008)

"Valerie Plame"





"O New England"





"Days of Elaine"

father

mining accident

1



brother

hanged

1


"Record Year"





"Raincoat Song"




The Hazards of Love (2009)

"Hazards of Love 1"





"A Bower Scene"





"Won't Want For Love"





"Hazards of Love 2"





"The Queen's Approach"





"Isn't It A Lovely Night?"





"The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid"





"The Rake's Song"

The Rake's wife

childbirth

1



Myfanwy

childbirth

1



Charlotte

poisoned

1



Dawn

drowned

1



Isaiah

beaten then burned

1


"The Abduction of Margaret"





"The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing"





"Annan Water"





"Margaret in Captivity"





"Hazards of Love 3"

The Rake

killed by ghosty kids (unspecified)

1


"The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)"





"Hazards of Love 4"

William

drowned

1



Margaret

drowned

1

Grand total: 70

Leading causes of death:

1. Cannibalism (31)
2. Drowned (6), unspecified (6)
3. War, unspecified (6)
4. Shot (5)
5. Childbirth (3), suicide (3)
6. Abandoned (1), beaten (1), beaten then burned (1), consumption (1), hanged (1), killed by ghosty kids (1), mining accident (1), poisoned (1), premature birth (1), stuck in chimney (1)

Deadliest releases:

1. Picaresque (44)
2. The Hazards of Love (8)
3. The Crane Wife (5)
4. Castaways & Cutouts (4)
5. Her Majesty (3)
6. Always the Bridesmaid EP (2), 5 Songs EP (2)
7. The Tain EP (1), Picaresquieties EP (1)

Deadliest songs:

1. "16 Military Wives" (36)
2. "The Rake's Song" (5)
3. "Leslie Anne Levine" (3)
4. "I Don't Mind" (2), "We Both Go Down Together" (2), "The Mariner's Revenge Song" (2), "The Perfect Crime #2" (2), "Days of Elaine" (2), "Hazards of Love 4" (2)

Appendix:

* This song references a character named Annabelle "seen reclining on an ocean swell" (much like Edgar Allan Poe's drowned "Annabel Lee") but Meloy says that she doesn't die (much unlike Poe's Annabel).

† These passing mentions of collective dead are technically characters of Meloy's own creation, but mentioned only in passing and only as innumerable, collective groups so they're not included in the overall tally. (Additionally, of "July, July!" Meloy notes that there's "lots of chicken-death here; song is about a former 'poultry rendering' plant haunted by chickens." This is the first and one of the only instances of animal cruelty in the band's catalog.)

‡ Thousands of soldiers and civilians die in Táin Bó Cúailnge, the bloody Irish legend on which this EP is based. Meloy's line "Here come the hounds / to blow me down" makes oblique mention of this. These aren't Meloy-original characters, but (to my knowledge) no exact death count is provided by the legend itself anyway, making the total nearly impossible to tally—rest assured, though, it's a big bloody mess.

§ Meloy doesn't give a specific number of crewman on board either the privateer ship or the whaling vessel mentioned in the song. However, historical sources (here, here and here) indicate that there may have been 16-36 crewmen aboard the whaling ship and 40-150 aboard the privateer, for a roughly estimated body count of 56-186.

‖ In both of these songs, female characters are roughed up pretty good, but neither die. "I'd say the song has a body count of one," Meloy says of "The Bachelor And The Bride." And though the landlord's daughter in "The Island" suite is threatened with a pistol and saber, Meloy says, "I think she survives."

¶ The exact number of "the dead of Manassas" referenced by Meloy in this song could include the First and/or Second Battles of Bull run. Statistics for those engagements are generally given in terms of total casualties, including wounded and dead: 4,700 Union and Confederate troops for the first, 22,180 for the second.

◊ This song makes reference to an actual rash of killings by Ulster loyalists against Irish Catholics in the 1980s. The real Shankill Butchers killed at least 10 individuals, although their specific victims aren't mentioned in the song.
 

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