The Decemberists: We All Raise Our Voices To The Air
Around the time of 2009’s surprisingly doom-y concept record The Hazards Of Love, a weird word started popping up in Decemberists’ reviews: metal. Given the group’s buttoned-down, librarian-folk façade, suggesting that it was somehow capable of throwing down the hammer of the gods inspired incredulity. Really? This walking thesaurus of literary lyricism and musical tastefulness was actually heavy?
No, not really. The Decemberists’ metal tendencies are latent and buried deep, so the blood-curdling Viking calls come out sounding like nice-guy college rock. But they’re still discernible underneath all the suit jackets and sweater-vests. Consider the evidence: 1) The most polarizing aspect of most metal bands is the lead vocalist, and so it is with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, who sounds gratingly flat and pompous if you hate his voice. And yet, as with Ronnie James Dio, the perfectly enunciated clarity of his vocals suits the epic storytelling of the lyrics. (Though unlike Dio, Meloy hasn’t yet invented a signature hand motion.) 2) The Decemberists once released an EP called The Tain, named after an 18-minute song based on an 8th-century poem, which on paper at least sounds pretty metal. (“Tain” is also a kind of metal used in mirrors.) 3) The only rock band from the last 10 years more obsessed with marrying big, somewhat ridiculous storylines with weird, feisty songwriting is Atlanta metal standard-bearer Mastodon, which almost never gets described as “literary.” 4) The Decemberists are a thoroughly unfashionable band to love, and their songs seem obscure and inaccessible to the uninitiated. But for fans, a Decemberists show is truly a communal experience. Head-banging might not be called for, but the head-nodding is spirited and vigorous.
That much is obvious from the two-hour, 20-song double album We All Raise Our Voices To The Air (Live Songs 04.11-08.11), a record that might be even more metal than The Hazards Of Love (in spirit, anyway). Recorded during several stops over the course of the Popes Of Pendarvia Tour (see?) in support of 2011’s The King Is Dead, We All Raise Our Voices is an attempt to both replicate the feel and flow of The Decemberists’ live show and sum up the band’s first decade via an excellent, career-spanning set list.
We All Raise Our Voices will seem immediately excessive for anyone who isn’t already a Decemberists fan, as double live albums (triple on vinyl!) tend to be. But for those in search of a greatest-hits record offering different-enough versions of much of the band’s best material, it hangs together well as it moves through diverse and seemingly incongruous periods in The Decemberists’ back catalog, from the sunny directness of the King Is Dead songs through the mystical peaks and fog-shrouded valleys of proggier material from Hazards and 2006’s The Crane Wife.
Like all live albums, We All Raise Our Voices is really more about Decemberists fans than it is about the band. First of all, they’re audible all over the record, echoing the backing vocals on “We Both Go Down Together” and playing an integral role in acting out the melodrama of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (which is only slightly less long-winded than Iron Maiden’s “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”).
The sing-alongs, the rhythmic clapping, the ill-considered stage patter—live albums are best appreciated for the stuff going on around the music rather than the music itself. Because, in essence, what you’re hearing is people you don’t know having a great time at a show you didn’t get to see in person. Those strangers really do seem to be enjoying themselves on We All Raise Our Voices, thanks in large part to Meloy, The Decemberists’ very own Paul Stanley, who doesn’t rest until he’s implored each and every single person in the audience to rise from their seats and sing with him. During “Billy Liar,” he sounds like he’s about to crawl out of the speakers and into your living room, if you have the nerve to still be lounging comfortably in your chair.
The band’s sense of humor is also more pronounced in a live setting, as on the truly terrible live favorite “Dracula’s Daughter” (introduced as always by Meloy as “the very worst song I ever wrote in my entire life”), which segues into one of the very best of Meloy’s songs, “O Valencia!” Meloy mostly excels at the between-song patter, too, though the album does open on a wincing note when he announces, rather smugly, “This is not the Keith Urban concert. If you mean to be at a Keith Urban concert, you will be sorely disappointed.” Those inclined to think that Meloy’s erudite manner is a cover for a misplaced sense of boho-yuppie superiority will roll their eyes at that one—though if his worst-ever live-album crime is overplaying a contemporary-country joke, at least he won’t have any talk-box solos on his conscience.
As for the music on Well All Raise Our Voices, The Decemberists remain an energetic, underrated live unit, though the versions of the band’s more straightforward tracks don’t vary radically from their studio versions, nor add much to them. While The Decemberists on record are arguably at their best when working with simple, melody-driven folk-pop songs like “Down By The Water” and “Leslie Anne Levine” from 2002’s Castaways And Cutouts, as a live band, it excels at behemoths like the 16-minute “The Crane Wife 1, 2, and 3,” which sadly does not come with audible smoke-machine sounds or the crash of an onstage Stonehenge set. But in their own endearingly geeky, exceedingly polite way, The Decemberists do shred.