August 2005: I am given the most precious device I have ever owned: a half-busted MP3 player. I think it had sixteen megabytes, which is a number that seems so preposterously low as I type it that I think I must be mistaken.
It carried as contents, amongst some other detritus which has been since scrubbed from my memory: some metal covers of video game songs, a couple jazz songs, some Modest Mouse, and Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect — the lead single from The Decemberists’ debut album, Castaways and Cutouts.
Do you remember the time before music was a thing? Like, a thing that you cared about, a piece of your diet, a void that demanded settlement. It is hard for me to remember that time: I remember listening to music on the radio and not really paying attention, but that’s it.
But I remember the turning point!
I remember before the half-earnest, half-ironic graphic tees, before the posters, before the ticket stubs, before the ill-advised vinyl purchases, before the calendar alerts for new albums, before the Pitchfork reviews awaited with bated breath, before the noise canceling headphones, before the arguments about which Kanye album was the real sign of decline, before the 24/7 lo-fi hiphop beats to chill/relax/study, before Discover Weekly and Limewire, before the workout playlist and the Friday night playlist and the Sunday morning playlist, before the mix CDs for crushes and the mix CDs for friends and the mix CDs for D.C. drives — before all of that, there was me sitting in my room listening to Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect over and over and realizing that music was a thing.
March 2009: The Decemberists have just released The Hazards of Love. It is a messy and towering album that bounces between folk opera and B-tier fantasy novel and I love it very much.
Their tour for this album, though — titled, as they are wont to do, the A Short Fazed Hovel Tour — is terrific. They play the entire album, front to back, and then play two additional sets on top of it.
January 2014: Colin Meloy plays a solo show at the Neptune. This is shortly before the release of What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, and he opens with The Singer Addresses His Audience:
We know, we know, we belong to ya
We know you threw your arms around us
In the hopes we wouldn’t change
But we had to change some
You know, to belong to you
The show is good, but the song is, you know, kind of existentially unsettling. It’s the opening song on What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, too, and you only give the album a couple courtesy listens before retreating back to their earlier work.
July 2018: I am reminded that I am seeing the Decemberists tonight at the Paramount.
I think I have seen enough concerts, you know? Like the idea of “going to a concert” has lost a little bit of the luster that it once had. Concerts are exhausting.
It’s not that I don’t want to see them, but I have to go straight to the venue from the airport (the friend with whom I’m seeing them being successfully cajoled into picking me up!)
But of course I see them — I have seen them around ten times before and they are always good shows, always filled with a showmanship that betrays their theatrical roots. (Plus, the friend with whom I’m seeing them has successfully been cajoled into picking me up.)
How was the concert? The concert was very good. Meloy’s voice has lost the sheen and volume of its earlier years, and the two new albums aren’t my favorite, but it’s still The Decemberists, and it’s still lovely.
The proceedings seem a little wearier than usual — there’s still the bit about Dracula’s Daughter but it’s a throwaway stanza instead of an extended riff — but it’s still the Decemberists.
They end with The Mariner’s Revenge Song which is obviously the best live closer of all time. They ask you to scream as if you are being eaten alive by a whale, and of course you oblige.
You remember, a little briefly, how it felt to listen to music when you were younger and sweeter and knew so much less about the world.
It still feels good to scream as if you are being eaten alive by a whale.
The allure of mosh pits might fade, the need for graphic tees might fade, the conscious coupling of identity and album choice might fade — but the primacy of screaming into a stage alongside hundreds of other fans won’t fade.
July 2018, but, like, the following day: I finally get around to listening to the Decemberists’ latest album, I’ll Be Your Girl. I listen to the opening track, Once In My Life, approximately ten times.
It’s a really good song. It’s better when you hear it live — but even then, it’s still a really good song.
(And now suddenly I can’t stop listening to the Decemberists. It is like 2005 all over again.)
I hope you listen to an old favorite album of yours.