"The Wanting Comes in Waves" / The Decemberists
Way too trendy, I know. The Decemberists are everybody's indie darlings -- heck, they live in totally-PC Portland, Oregon, and their mock sparring with Stephen Colbert on TV's The Colbert Report is the last word in wink-wink knowingness. (They're supposed to be on again tonight, singing this very song, a blurb about which appearance triggered today's aural tic.) And, talk about indie creds, they even lined up Robyn Hitchcock for their latest album, The Hazards of Love, a concept album-cum-rock-opera that's practically Colin Meloy's PhD thesis on archaic English folk ballads. All they let Robyn do was play guitar on one track, but still, they got to name-check him in the liner notes.
Still, their last album The Crane Wife worked its way under my skin, and Hazards of Love shows every promise of doing the same. I ended up giving this album a thumbs-up in my review for Blogcritics and I got tickets to see them at Radio City in June (I found out later that Robyn and the Venus 3 are the opening act, so really, there must be a God).
The fact that I get hooked on their music still baffles me, though. Usually I look for classic song structure, neatly turned lyrics, and catchy melodic lines, and Colin Meloy's compositions don't do very well on any of those scores -- his stuff is more symphonic, with recurring leitmotifs, lushly textured arrangements, and words that are little too Poetry-With-A-Capital-P for my tastes. I don't know what the guy is like personally, but there's a distinct lack of humor in this album, and that is usually the kiss of death for me. And yet.
I should point out that this track on the album isn't just "The Wanting Comes in Waves" -- it's medlied up with another song, "Repaid," sung by the opera's villainess, The Queen. That half of the track is delivered with shivering blues-rock intensity by guest singer Shara Worden, who apparently is in a band called My Brightest Diamond (no, I'd never heard of them either). The way she swaggers through "Repaid" is impressive, but that's not the song that's stuck in my head.
No, I'm stuck only on "The Wanting Comes in Waves" half, which is sung by Colin in his earnest folky vocals. It starts off at a solemn, tentative pace, accompanied by harpsichord (yes, they do get away with it), a doleful minor-key recitatif in which our hero William -- who is, get this, a sort of silkie foundling (yes, they get away with that too) -- recounts how his mother rescued his cradle from the reeds when he was just a wee babe. Honest.
But then the song blossoms and swells, picking up pace, adding drums and electric guitar; as it shifts into a major key, back-up singers pitch in with ooohs, until it reaches almost cinematic grandeur. "But the wanting comes in waves," William wails over and over, and you've got to feel sorry for the guy, sorta like I felt sorry for that cute little David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, totally at the mercy of his animal impulses. I hate to put it so crudely -- this is such a twee project, after all -- but William is getting the musical equivalent of a hard-on. Within the story line, that is actually exactly the point. And as it morphs into the the Queen's hot-mama rendition of "Repaid," this story plumbs its own Freudian depths. "And I want this night," William begs, passionately, in the first movement; when he takes over the stage again, after the first go-round of "Repaid," his plea has changed to "And you owe me life!" The Queen gives in, no doubt with a testy swish of her black skirt -- but you just know this is not going to end well for poor William. Fade out and dissolve.
You know, it's taken me years to work past my old English major pretensions, and now here's Colin Meloy pulling me right back in. Still, I gotta admire him for even trying this kind of sophomoric artsy crap. The fact that it's actually listenable -- no, make that compelling -- is pretty amazing. If he can get past the defenses of a skeptic like me, he must be doing something right.
The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid