KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Decemberists' lead singer: Meaning of their music is up to fans — and that's a good thing

The Decemberists
The Decemberists
The Decemberists

The Show's Sam Dingman is always intrigued by an album that’s intended to be experienced like a film or a TV show, where the idea is that you sit and take the whole thing in, start to finish. His first introduction to albums like that came from the band The Decemberists, in particular "The Crane Wife" and "Hazards of Love."

The Decemberists recently released their first studio album in six years, "As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again." They will also be playing at the Van Buren in Phoenix on July 20.

While the new album is not a full-blown, end-to-end narrative record like the other two, it does end with a 19-minute song about Joan of Arc that’s basically a mini-concept album. It’s got all the hallmarks of a Decemberists record: a blend of hyper-literate lyrics, complex storytelling and intricate instrumentals.

And for the band’s lead singer, Colin Meloy, finding that balance is the best part. Dingman spoke more about the album with him.

Full conversation

COLIN MELOY: That's sort of at the end of the day, what I live for and songwriting and songwriting is really doing a puzzle. There's these constraints and constraints are good, you know, obstacles are good because they can create more vibrant and more interesting work.

SAM DINGMAN: Yeah. I'm reminded as, as you're talking about that puzzle and that challenge of, there's a moment towards the end of “Hazards of Love” where, there's no way to summarize the story in the space of this interview. But, you know, there's characters on horseback dashing towards this river that is raging and they're going to have to find a way to get over the river to the other side to escape pursuit.


You build us up to that moment, story wise. But then in my mind, the music kind of tells the story of how they get across the river. The music gets very violent and there's lots of different sonic elements clashing against each other. And in my mind, at least you, imagine the characters …

MELOY: They make it.


DINGMAN: But there's no words that convey that you just kind of give way to the music there.

MELOY: Yeah. Well, I mean, so much of this stuff is intentionally left up to the listeners’ interpretation. And, like, I think that you came to that conclusion. And that might be different from my conclusion. That's not to say that either one is right or wrong. And then that's what makes the work kind of living and, and, and make it be a kind of a collaborative thing between the writer and the listener.

DINGMAN: Well, there's a part like that in “Joan in the Garden” on the new record. Tell me about what's happening in, in the middle of that song.

MELOY: That's hard to say. I mean, the “Joan in the Garden” piece, the song is not so much a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, but rather an exploration of that idea, of kind of transcendent visitation. In my reading, that's sort of what happened to Joan in the garden when she first is visited by these angels, by these saints. And that sort of the, the kernel of that story that I find interesting.

I mean, at the time, I'm sure it was like, well, of course, she was visited by angels. That's just the thing that happened. But now, you know, as we in our modern times, you wonder about hallucination, you wonder about mental illness. And that's, that's the kind of stuff that I wanted to explore in the story of Joan.

And so that section, it's really a way of expressing that and having that moment occur the best way we can, in sort of an audio experience.


MELOY: My hope would be that the listener sitting with headphones or good speakers, there's something really, you know, intentionally listening to that part, even though that may be challenging, particularly in this day and age. But to, to get to that place, that transcendence and that sort of hallucination that Joan might have experienced.

DINGMAN: Another recurring theme across your records for me at least is not just falling in love, but how we are supposed to love each other and, critically, how much of that love or of this life matters after death, whether we're talking about the death of a relationship or the death of the body.

MELOY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there's a, there are a lot of heartbroken ghosts in my songs and heartbroken survivors being followed by ghosts.

DINGMAN: So how much of that part of your brain was on your mind on “Burial Ground, “which is another song from the new record?

MELOY: Yeah. I mean, I think that that kind of chipper melody along with, you know, but then you listen close you like, oh, well, they're actually hanging out in a cemetery. I mean, as a teen, you know, I found myself hanging out with my friends in cemeteries from time to time. You know, as young people, as your starting to know yourself and, and understand yourself, that draw to that signal of everyone's mortality. I think it's kind of fascinating.


MELOY: I think that kind of goes to that fascination of mine, of marrying those two very different feels. And, yeah, I mean, I think it's a, it's a question also.I mean, I think on this record, probably less dying and more kind of reflections on death and mortality. And, and, and I think that that as leading off the record, I think, kind of sets that tone.

"As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again" by The Decemberists.
The Decemberists
"As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again" by The Decemberists.

DINGMAN: So coming back to this question of how much and whether to direct the listeners’ experience of the story. Another interesting case study for me here is “The Crane Wife,” which in the version that I have, the last song is “Sons and Daughters.” But if I'm not mistaken, there's a version of it that ends with the song “After the Bombs”?

MELOY: Yeah.

DINGMAN: And what's interesting to me about that is to my experience, which obviously is not objective, “Sons and Daughters” is a very hopeful redemptive sort of song. And “After the Bombs,” it is a little bit more melancholy. How did you approach the decision of, of which version of the ending to settle on?

MELOY: Well, that's always a funny story. I mean, I think that that was in an era, you know, when there is all these competing, and they weren't even streaming services then just places to download music. And I think there was this effort to create incentives, you know, so you would be asked to add tracks to the end of the, I don't know if that was like the iTunes version or something like that.

DINGMAN: Yes, it was.

MELOY: And, and I, I never like doing it because there is, you know, the sequences of these records and that, certainly the first song and the last song are super critical. And, and “Sons and Daughters” was always the ending song.


MELOY: You know, that's, that's the note that I wanna end on. But then we were impelled to put one of the kind of cast-off outtakes on to the end of it. And it happened to be “After the Bombs.” And I was so bummed. I was like, but how, how many people are gonna do that? And they're gonna think, I don't think it was till after the fact that I realized that there was gonna be this whole swath of our listenership that would think that “After the Bombs” is the last song on that. I mean, in my head, “Sons and Daughters” is the last song.

But, you know, it's not mine, too. It kind of belongs to everyone at this point.

DINGMAN: Sure, sure. Yeah, totally. I mean, the last line of “After the Bombs” is “Till it all starts over again.”

MELOY: And, yeah, maybe that and then, and then your, your iTunes shuffle would put it back, started at the top.

DINGMAN: Right, right. So it, if nothing else it forces you into thinking about this question.

MELOY: Right. Yeah, maybe that is the better ending for it.


KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
Related Content