The Decemberists Pave Their Own Way

In our latest Digital Cover Story, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Colin Meloy discusses coming out on the other side of burnout, how a teenaged fascination with Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation inspired the band’s greatest song yet, and their new album, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again.

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The Decemberists Pave Their Own Way

Few lyricists of the last 20 years can claim the catalog Colin Meloy has amassed with his band, the Decemberists. Their records are like novels, dense with story arcs of French soldier POVs, Romeo & Juliet adaptations, daydreams across different eras, hideouts in European mountains and dead spouses. Meloy and his battalion of folklorists have obsessed over Shirley Collins arrangements and written epic songs, like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” that crossed over into prog-rock territory and gleaned traditional folk archetypes and sea shanty ephemera. Instead of making music that caters to a more palatable, less-niche spectrum of listeners, Meloy has upped the ante on the Decemberists’ new album, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, his, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen’s first release together in six years. “I feel like the best stuff I’ve written is the stuff that moves me,” he says. “As long as I feel like I’m making something that’s true to me, to myself, then, despite what other people think, that is me working at my best.” And, in turn, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is the best Decemberists album in at least a decade, maybe even longer—not so much a “return to form,” but a continuance of consistency and affection for long-held glory.

The Decemberists’ last LP, I’ll Be Your Girl, was so invested in a specific, heartbreaking, uncertain, proto-dystopian moment in time and catalyzed by Trump getting elected as president that its songs were ensconced in the most contemporary attitudes, emotions and mangled cynicisms in the band’s catalog yet. The humor and the absurdity in the album was a refreshing reprieve, as were the temptations and deaths hawked from Russian mermaid mythology, ambient catharsis, children’s choirs and Roxy Music progeny. But touring those tracks, especially one like “Severed” (and its gutting “I’m allied to the landslide, gonna leave you all severed” couplet), was a solemn and maddening labor to get tangled up with. “For whatever reason, that tour was a little fraught for me,” Meloy says. “A lot of anguish and anger that were channeled into those songs.”

The music was well-served by John Congleton’s production, matching its angry and acerbic attitudes with a certain kind of melancholic color. “If you look back, we started out playing a ton of new songs from the record and, by the end of it, I could barely play them anymore,” Meloy adds. “We finished the tour in an unused or off-season amusement park in Germany at a festival. It felt like a very symbolic ending to that record cycle, to finish it in an abandoned amusement park in Germany. My mind—my soul—felt like an abandoned amusement park in Germany.” While the interior monologue of a would-be autocrat at the core of “Severed” and the narrator blithely wandering around a concentration camp in the first verse of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” live together in the band’s discography pretty well, Meloy is transparent about his disinterest in lyricizing anger. “I was a little bit more free to write about very dark things early on in the Decemberists’ career that, maybe, I’m not as keen to do now,” he continues.

Tapping into As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, it’s clear immediately that this is not the same Decemberists who made “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” 20 years ago. But, at the same time, this is the Decemberists of old, too. The songs are, lyrically, as romantic, cynical, alienated and quixotic as ever. Musically, the band has pivoted away from the synth-inspired work of the album’s predecessor, favoring the rustic and bygone (yet timeless) Americana and intercontinental folk totems they’ve long turned into tomes. But Meloy has come a long way from being a hungry frontman on the precipice of injecting staying power into his and his bandmates’ names. “The band was my life [back then], it was my every waking moment,” he says. “I don’t think I was really thinking about much else—just writing all the time, for the band, in this creative fever. I really stand behind all that stuff that we were doing then, and I think we did make a lot of really good work.” Though he wasn’t making albums like Picaresque and Her Majesty the Decemberists in the, as he calls it, “flush of youth” (he was in his early 30s when the band was first taking off), Meloy has a measured approach now—not because of his age, but because of how long the Decemberists have been together—and his attitude has shifted. His prolific writing output has been spread across other ventures that co-exist with each other.

Over the last 15 years, Meloy has picked up a successful second career as a children’s writer (and his debut adult novel, Cascadia, will come out sometime in 2025). Though that and his lyricism come from the same part of his brain, have their own identifiable lanes and exist separately from each other, his books—like Wildwood, The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid and The Stars Did Wander Darkling—have become a “helpful foil” against his songwriting. “I think they came at a time when, maybe, I was ready to step away naturally from the band a little bit and stretch those other creative muscles,” he says. “Ever since then, it’s been really satisfying to go back and forth between the two things. They’re so different, but they tend to influence each other.” While Meloy was concocting the drafts of what would become As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, he was also working on songs for the upcoming Wildwood movie adaptation and writing music for other people. “It was an interesting experiment,” he continues, “and it did help break open some pathways to finishing songs for this record. For so long, I’ve struggled with [the questions of] ‘What is a Decemberists song? Who am I writing for? Am I writing for myself, am I writing for an audience? Who is that audience and what do they expect? What does a label expect? All these things can really overwhelm you, and writing music for somebody else to sing suddenly was very freeing.”

Meloy was able to harness some of that energy and put it into the songs he was writing for the Decemberists’ ninth studio album. He and the band spent a week in the studio in February 2023, playing around with different fragments of songs he’d been working on in his songwriting journal. “That was really a frustrating experience. But I think I came out the other end of it having a better understanding of how I like to work and how I want to work in the studio,” Meloy says. “I think that informed the road forward and I think, also, working on these other projects [and writing songs for voices], I had this new confidence in writing songs that I would sing. The combination of those two things—this understanding of wanting to get rid of this idea of what a Decemberists song was, who I was writing for—made me realize that I’m not the final arbiter of what a Decemberists song is.”

Released from the binds of what an audience or record executives might want from a Decemberists song, Meloy decided to make the work he wanted to make. “I think that was really a breakthrough and a bit of clarity that helped push me through,” he continues. “There’s a flush of new songs that follow that.” While Meloy did finish some of those journal fragments and present them to the band as demos, most of that material didn’t survive—except for “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind.” The band played around with “Joan in the Garden” briefly during that initial week, but most of the record was written in the last six months before they went into the studio.

Though the period of time it took to make As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again was fairly typical for a Decemberists album, Meloy and producer Tucker Martine spent the first two weeks of recording alone, trying to “invert the way we usually work, where the band all comes in, they have a familiarity with the songs from the demos and we play as a full band, drums and bass and build from that.” “With [As It Ever Was], it was like, ‘Well, let’s experiment with just starting with me and starting with the songs, starting with the guitar and the vocal, and then building off of that as a way to de-clutter that experience and try something new, even in the confines of what probably felt like a pretty familiar environment,” Meloy adds.

By the time the sessions for As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again kicked into full gear later in 2023, Meloy came to the studio with about 24 demos in hand—the most he’d ever given to the band during the recording process. “I was throwing everything at the wall, because—why not?” he says. It’s not something that I’ve done in the past—I’m usually pretty circumspect about the material that I demo and give to the band. But I was in a moment where I was like, ‘There’s a lot of material, let’s just finish it up and see what people like.’” Meloy runs a Substack, Machine Shop, and does an ongoing series where he goes back, finds “lost” material he’s “always been fond of but never have demoed,” demos them and sends them to his readers. Some of those tracks were added to the As It Ever Was slush pile, if only out of pure experimentation. “Recording those, I was curious—like, ‘Oh, I wonder if this would make a Decemberists record in 2024,’” he adds. “As it turns out, they didn’t. They were submitted for appraisal and maybe one of them got kind of close to being a contender, but, at the end of the day, it didn’t quite make the cut.”

The tracklist for As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is one of the Decemberists’ top-to-bottom best they’ve ever assembled. There’s an undercurrent of mortality that’s grown more acute in a way that only aging can truly inspire. Opener “Burial Ground” is light and melodic, poppy like something Richard Thompson might have cooked up for I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, while “Long White Veil” acts as a companion for Lefty Frizzell’s “The Long Black Veil” and awakens with the tale of a dead bride’s corpse. “All I Want is You” is as sweet as its title suggests, with Meloy’s protagonist crooning that “all the wives of Ohio couldn’t move me a mile half as much as” his lover does; “William Fitzwilliam” is pure John Prine, with Meloy transposing folk standard attitudes into a ditty about princes in England and hearts lost “to the sweetness of sin.”

“Oh No!” makes good on its exclamation, arriving like a doting, lurking dance with the devil that exists someplace between psychedelia and samba, while “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind” is the most cut-and-dry, no-frills-needed folk-rock tune you could ever expect from the Decemberists—a blueprint they’ve executed time and time again without much fuss. The album’s 19-minute, four-part closer, “Joan in the Garden,” is a re-telling of the legend of Joan of Arc, one that details a “reckoning at hand,” acting like a sonic variety show sent to deliver a mirage of “skull[s] on the parquet,” “blood flow[ing] like a fountain” and stones, grapevines and a narrator “suspended from the orrery, bursting into light.”

“Joan in the Garden” existed as far back as 2017 in demo form during the I’ll Be Your Girl sessions, but it was unfinished. When Meloy re-introduced it to the band in February 2023, “the words in it were just placeholders,” but everybody was excited about it. “ If you’re going to make a Joan of Arc song, you can’t miss. If you’re going to take a swing for that, best not fuck it up,” he explains. “I think I was being really careful about that—and that first attempt just didn’t pass muster. Finding new ideas for ‘Joan,’ I think that, once I’d landed on them, [the song] took shape pretty quickly. And I think the band was really excited to work on that.” The band hadn’t done a 10-minute, multi-part song on a studio album since “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” (12 minutes) and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” (11 minutes) on The Crane Wife in 2006. “I do think that the Decemberists are a band of instrumentalists who really love a good puzzle and a good challenge,” Meloy adds with a laugh.

With shortening attention spans stretching as far as the eye can see, and the instant-gratification streaming services can provide listeners, making a song like “Joan in the Garden” is, as Meloy puts it, “a ballsy move.” “But it’s something I’ve always loved as a listener,” he continues. When he was in middle school, Meloy bought Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation because, since CDs were a “luxury purchase” at the time, he “would often make the judgement of what record to buy based on how long the record was.” “And I knew that Daydream Nation was a double-record, so I was like, ‘That’s a bang for your buck!’ It’s led me in a lot of weird directions. I remember standing at a record store and trying to decide between two Hüsker Dü records and going with Land Speed because it had 17 songs on it. Turns out, they’re all 30 seconds long. I was probably not quite ready for that, but it pushed me in weird directions.” You can chalk the ambitions of “Joan in the Garden” up to something like Sonic Youth’s “Trilogy,” the three-part, 14-minute finale of Daydream Nation. “I loved the journey that it took you on as a listener,” Meloy concludes. “I loved imagining just what it would take to write and record something like that.”

When arranging “Joan in the Garden,” Meloy had the first two parts sealed in amber but hoped to “end it in a big way.” With how colossal the song’s second act is, the finale needed to “out-huge” it. Cue a five-minute ambient passage and then Black Sabbath-sized guitars and a full-speed-ahead rock breakdown that grows from its hums as if it was Eve germinating from Adam’s rib. “The riff on that final part is basically an extrapolation of the riff in the second part,” Meloy says. “They’re connected in that way and, initially in the demo, there was no ambient space—but I knew that something was missing there. As we were grappling with it in the studio, I had plenty of little fragments that could create another musical piece there, but it just didn’t feel right. It wanted something strange.”

The song’s recording was a challenge, though. Meloy recorded “Joan in the Garden” at home a few BPM higher than how the final cut of the track was presented on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. “It was too fast and even my home demo, if you listen to it, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m barely keeping up with the pace,’” he says. “We knocked it back a few ticks in the studio, but even then it’s still, I think even for Iron Maiden’s standards, a little too fast. We’re continually getting better at playing it. So many of these other songs are pretty simple, and you arrive [quickly] at a place where it’s going to live, as far as the performance goes. ‘Joan in the Garden,’ I think every night you’re discovering something new [about it].”

The song has quickly become the Decemberists’ encore track—clocking in at a tight 20 minutes. While some bands might take a track of that magnitude as an opportunity to experiment with expansion or jamming, Meloy and his crew aren’t interested in overdoing it, especially after asking a crowd (many of whom are standing on cement floors in hot venues) to buy into a five-minute soundscape of ambient noise more than an hour into a rock concert. “I think, every night, Chris Funk is like ‘That felt like that was really short,’” Meloy continues. “He always wants to go a little bit longer. The challenging thing about that is that it’s a really important part of the piece, but, also, it’s probably easy to be overly indulgent with it. It’s not intended to be indulgent, it’s very purposeful.”

Though Meloy claims that, by the time they were making The Crane Wife, the Decemberists were really clicking, “Joan in the Garden” is now the definitive barometer for the band’s distinctiveness, with instrumental pieces that were collaboratively put together in a way that’s completely rejuvenated and reformed their entire setlist. “It was outside of people’s wheelhouses, but everybody was really excited and game to bring their own ideas and their own energy to it,” Meloy says. “It does often really shine a light on everybody’s versatility as musicians, being able to rise to that challenge and make it work.”

When you make an album like As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, a 60-minute record so indebted to the narrative work of the band’s yesteryear with a kind of intentionality that is not nostalgic but redemptive, it says a lot about the longevity of the Decemberists, that they can make their most vibrant record in over a decade while still pulling from those worn-in structures set into place at the turn of the century. “There are ups and downs throughout your career,” Meloy contends. “Every time we finish a record, I find myself facing the void. I’m not the sort of person who just writes a ton of songs and whatever’s left over will be used for the next record or whatever. I often feel like I don’t even know what the next record will be or what it wants to be—and I feel like even less so now, where we can afford to spend a little more time between records. We’re just making the work that we want to make, following that general current of my creative desires and it leads us where it leads us.”

On As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, familiar faces like the Shins’ James Mercer and Mike Mills make cameo appearances, and the songs feel like real celebrations—both for the band and the people who’ve stuck around with them for so long. The Decemberists are no longer consumed by the rigors of what the music industry expects of its artists. They’re not churning out new material every year or two for productivity’s sake; As It Ever Was has diversified Meloy’s creative pursuits in perpetuity. “When we started working on the record, we didn’t really know what its home would be,” he says. “There was a thought that we would put it out on Capitol, but I think we knew that our time was done there. It just didn’t make sense to do that anymore.”

As a result, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again was self-released on YABB Records with Thirty Tigers, a new direction for a band who’s never behaved like a major label band. “And I don’t think we were ever treated as a major label band,” Meloy adds. “I think, now that we have this apparatus of our own record label, with the backbone of Thirty Tigers, we’ll still continue to uncover what we can do and what we can create and what we can put out. I have a feeling we’ll continue on our same path but, once this record’s out, I guess that will be the real informative moment.” As “Joan in the Garden” trudges onwards, lights up in a flash and comes back down to earth, its conclusion symbolizes a future for the Decemberists that is rid of fear. Meloy remains one of folk music’s greatest living raconteurs and, after combing through the miasma of those initial journal fragments and settling into the breakthrough creative stupor that followed, he and his bandmates have given us a collection of 13 songs that I can only surmise is a preamble to whatever is destined to come next for all of them. As Meloy sings near the record’s end: “We are folded in the firmament, catch us as we fly.”

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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