Edward Gorey never framed the untimely death of a child so cruelly as does Colin Meloy in the opening moments of the Decemberists’ debut: "My name is Lesley Anne Levine/My mother birthed me down a dry ravine/My mother birthed me far too soon/Born at nine and dead at noon." Not only is Lesley dead, she’s miserable — her suffering persists after the brief bloom of life has left her, and we find her ghost loveless to boot. In subsequent songs, we meet a lovelorn guard at Birkenau, a disemboweled French-Canadian whiskey bootlegger, a fair maiden shanghai’d by pirates into indentured sexual servitude, and a lonely "legionnaire/camel in disrepair, hoping for a Frigidaire to come passing by." The album might have been called A Series of Unfortunate Events. As in Lemony Snicket’s children’s books, the gruesome is followed close on by the bathetic, and leavened only by the narrator’s barely discernible black humor; even the evening light "dies terribly." The creep-out factor is high — the song about the maiden, for instance, is sung to her daughter: "So be kind to your mother . . . and the next time she tries to feed you collard greens, remember what she does when you’re asleep." Not for nothing is it called "A Cautionary Song."
Meloy is an elegant songwriter with a keening, petulant voice — no points off for guessing he’s British, though in fact he’s from Missoula via Oregon. The chamber-folk outfit behind him is capable of rock and of waltz, with liberal doses of Hammond organ and accordion and strings where necessary. The songs are warm and sweet and sad and, despite the body count, full of life. It’s always frightening to find a songwriter who can craft rock lyrics that work as literature. And if Meloy is at almost every juncture reminiscent, in phrasing and in concept, of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, it’s also not too big a stretch to suggest that he does NMH better than NMH. With the Decemberists, he’s absorbed Mangum’s techniques — the high, reedy voicings; the easy fluidity of time, memory, and narrative perspective — and crafted a more coherent (or at least less surrealist) package with a more conventionally affecting band.