In 2011 the Decemberists released the album ‘The King Is Dead’. It was a departure from their previous albums. It was less an exercise in old British folk tales and impenetrable references, and more an alt-country tinged monument to folk-pop melancholia.
I had listened to the band off and on prior to the album’s release. I liked them but they never really struck a very deep chord with me. The song ‘July July’ was easily my favorite of their pre-King efforts, and might still be my favorite of their tunes, but this album really hit me hard. I have always loved music that taps into strains of Americana that aren’t overwhelmed by jingoism and patriotism. Bob Dylan, The Band, Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Hollis Brown, and Trapper Schoepp are all among my favorites for that reason. The Decemberists music never seemed to fit in that category, but the King is Dead does. It’s themes and sounds evoke the same deeply rooted spirits of a country filled with open roads and sad but hopeful people.
I may be overselling its alt-country bonafides as it’s still much more a folk-pop record than, say, Grievous Angel, but there’s enough pedal steel and banjo that it’s not out of place next to them on the shelf.
My friend Dan was even less of a fan of the band prior to the album than I was. To the best of my knowledge it was the first of their albums he ever owned. Once he got it and started listening to it, he immediately put it into heavy rotation. The net result of that is that it was the soundtrack for my bachelor party.
I got married in May of 2011. A few weeks prior to the date Dan, with some help from other folks I think, planned a bachelor party weekend. I’m not a Vegas/Atlantic City cigars and strippers kind of guy, and they all knew that, so they knew that the usual bachelor party tropes weren’t really gonna work.
I like to imagine they decided on what to do in a moment of divine inspiration and heard James Earl Jones saying ‘Baseball, Ray’ when they decided what to do.
We met behind the building where I used to work and set off in a rented van big enough to carry all of us and make my other friend Steve car sick. I had no idea where we were going, just that my brother would be meeting us there.
I’m not sure if the first thing we listened to was the Decemberists, but it came up at least once as we drove through Delaware and northwest into Pennsylvania. Our eventual destination was a minor league baseball game between the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees and the Pawtucket Red Sox. The game involved things like me dancing on the field in a tutu and a young father sitting behind us realizing that very loud fireworks can scare very small children. I was a great time.
From there we stayed overnight in one of the stripped bare post-manufacturing job cities that dot Pennsylvania, and moved on the next day to Cooperstown, New York, and the baseball hall of fame.
This is the kind of thing I love. Road trips, fun destinations, and lots of goofy camaraderie. We finished up with a visit to the Cooperstown brewery, and then on home.
It was a genuinely lovely trip, but it was the drive home that I always remember when I hear the Decemberists.
Late in the evening as we drove through the rocky hills of Pennsylvania, as the sky turned slate grey and the waning sunlight, ‘Don’t Carry It All’ came on. Everyone was pretty tired and relatively quiet. I was sitting up front with Dan as we crested one of the hills and drove down the other side in the last bit of spring sunlight, as the harmonica intro played and then Colin Meloy sang:
Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
The neighbors blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all in one
Sometimes in your life you hear the exact right song at the exact right moment and that was one of them. The music, the people I was with, the time of day, everything was just perfect.
The song is a beautiful piece of melancholy inspiration. It was written in Portland, but could just as easily have come from one of those old coal towns that we were driving through. They’re smaller towns, places that have been forgotten, but still filled with people who have to get by every day. ‘Don’t Carry It All’ is about those burdens, and not succumbing to them. It’s also about community and family. The core of the song is that when you’re surrounded by people that care you don’t have to carry it all on your own back.
As someone who isn’t good at asking for help, and spends a lot of time worrying about everyone around me, the song speaks to me on a lot of levels. It’s hard to let go of those burdens, and harder to ask anyone to help carry them, but that’s part of what that weekend was about. The folks with me on those days aren’t all still with us, and I’m not as close to all of them as I was, but the rest I would consider family more so than friends.
Whenever I hear the song, I’m transported back to that evening. I can see the sun fade into the night, I can see the hills, and I can feel the bonds that tie us all together while we’re here on earth, and it always makes me smile.
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders
Don’t carry it all don’t carry it all
We are all our hands in holders
But meet this bold and brilliant sun
But this I swear to all
A slight postscript to this is that Dan would go on to become a huge fan of the band. He’s seen them at least once since then. Their next album ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ he ended up buying for me as a gift. He lives about three hours away, and I spent one of my trips driving out to his place listening to it on loop. The song ‘A Beginning Song’ is the standout for me and I listened to it enough on that one drive that I now associate it completely with the hills and highways of Western Maryland, not too far from the hills and highways of Pennsylvania.
The Decemberists are from the Pacific Northwest, but for me they will always be a coal country band.