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Decemberists @ Vicar Street, Dublin


…in which the good ship Infanta sails into Dublin on a sea of whimsy and English tea, bearing forth a band of bohemian minstrels, sweating absinthe, smoking shisha pipes, brandishing muskets, sextants and satchels overflowing with sonnets scrawled on rolls of teletype paper. Right from the outset, it is clear that the audience, squeezed into a venue fittingly bedecked in wooden friezes, will be treated to something truly rare in modern music: originality. Firstly, there’s frontman and songwriter in chief Colin Meloy’s lyrics, which are uniquely literate, ribald and at times just a tad sinister in the best possible way. Take ‘Eli, The Barrow Boy’, for example, a haunting nursery rhyme of a broken thing with another lost and lonely character at its centre. The depth and breadth of Meloy’s imagination is never short of astounding, and woven together forms quite the adventure in storytelling. Nowhere else can one find such a seemingly endless back catalogue of fables starring legionnaires, chimney sweeps, gymnasts, architects, bandit queens, engine drivers, nymphs and satyrs.

This adventurous quality comes to the fore in ‘The Island’. Bravely busted out relatively early in the set, it’s a multi-layered opera that shifts shape from prog-rock to folk over the course of nearly fifteen minutes. It is eerie and discombobulating and deliberately overblown but it works. As does the segue into a cheery muzak version of ‘Los Angeles, I’m Yours’ or its polar opposite ‘The Rake Song’, where the entire band beat individual drums while Meloy sings cheerily about infanticide. There is a certain carnivalesque tone to the performance, particularly when the band turn first night of the tour fluffs and cock-ups into gags and off-the-cuff covers of The Smiths and Spandau Ballet. Yes, that’s right: Spandau Ballet.

None of this is to say that The Decemberists are intended only for the spectacle-burdened ears of bookish spods. The songs lifted from terrific new album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World seem more introspective, more bittersweet than ever before, as Meloy appears to have focused less on fictitious figures and more on himself. ‘Lake Song’, a tender account of being “seventeen and terminally fey”, is quite, quite lovely, while opener ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, during which he walks into a single milky spotlight before his fellow musicians join him, is a witty parody of life in a touring band, and not the kind that boasts of ransacked hotel rooms.

Elsewhere, ‘Make You Better’ bristles with riffs and lovelorn yearning but those expecting a simple run-through of the new album will be surprised by a selection of tracks from across the back catalogue. There are stirring renditions of ‘Down By The Water’, a distant cousin of REM’s ‘The One I Love’ (no surprise given that Peter Buck played on it) and ‘16 Military Wives’. The standout moment is arguably a final encore of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ wherein the band, unshackled from the pressure of completing a full gig after a few years off, let loose on the twisted, wilfully odd shanty full of oompah oompah, synchronised swaying and the re-enactment of being swallowed by a whale. Heavy on tongue-in-cheek laughs and audience participation, it brings the house down like a clean-shaven Sampson. Ross Thompson