If you’ve never heard the Decemberists before, this album is a great place to start. It’s got many hallmarks of later Decemberists’ albums: accordions, vocabulary you’d find in an English PhD dissertation, huge worlds of characters built into these songs.
I’d call it literary folk rock. Musically, they sound different than any other band I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this whole old-timey instruments/weird mish-mash of styles has become its own genre, with many bands boldly taking up the mantle of the accordion and playing what could easily be mistaken as pirate music. But for me, the Decemberists were the first band I’d heard do it, and they do it great, and I wouldn’t want to listen to much more of it outside of them.
Lyrically, they’re cut from a similar cloth as Sufjan Stevens or Bob Dylan. Dylan often updated old-time folk songs, while Sufjan uses geographically established cultural pinpoints to write his autobiographical songs (this is done almost exclusively on his two state albums, Michigan and Illinois). The Decemberists take a slightly different approach, creating modern folk songs out of a wide variety of cultures, time periods, geographical locations, etc. Their lyrics aren’t bound to a specific time or place, and this album is just the beginning of that trend for the band.
And the vocabulary used on this record is really quite stunning. Bagatelles, joie de vive, laudanum, fecundity, moribund, indolent, wastrel, balustrade. All words and phrases found on this album. And it’s not like they’re all in one song called “The Thesaurus Song” and the band just went looking for uncommon words to use. Frontman Colin Meloy really does just write this way. This can be hit or miss, depending on your personal preference. It’s not hard for this lyricism to come off as pretentious.
What’s interesting about Castaways And Cutouts is how well they offset that semi-pretentious lyricism with their bucolic musical style. Sure, there are some outlier songs (specifically “A Cautionary Tale,” which sounds like a first draft of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” off of their better album, Picaresque), but for the most part, this album has a very folksy, almost country/western style to it. It keeps the lyrical style from being too over the top. This is done perfectly in “Grace Cathedral Hill.” It’s a slowly-moving ballad, but nowhere near as slow as “Coccoon” and “Clementine” (which suffer from their molasses tempos). “Grace Cathedral Hill” is a sad song that juxtaposes fancy and common language with melancholy country/western slide guitars behind it. It’s very pretty and very well done.
The most interesting thing for me was that with only a cursory knowledge of the album prior to this post, I thought I liked most the songs a lot with five or six listens. Over the course of the last couple weeks though, with more dedicated listening, I’m finding this particular Decemberists album to be a little lacking in my opinion. Most of the songs liked upon initial listening lost some of their verve and I really came to enjoy the few tunes I hadn’t loved before.
Along with the aforementioned “Grace Cathedral Hill,” I also really loved “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade.” This is a nearly 10 minute tune split into two major parts, and the first half is what I really loved. It’s in some kind of dropped guitar tuning, slow but grand, very reminiscent of the American West Coast and the anthemic nature of the song is just really cool. I feel like the band doesn’t always go full “stadium” in their songs, but “California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade” is a great example of how awesome it is when they do.
As far as the Decemberists catalog goes, this is a solid debut album, pointing very clearly to where the band would go on their future releases. It’s certainly not perfect, but a great place to start as an introduction to the band’s unique blending of high-brow lyricism and all-over musicality.
- California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade
- Grace Cathedral Hill
- Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect