On their second album The Decemberists expand their musical palette, adding horns, strings and bells. They continue to expand your vocabulary (dictionary moments include bombazine, dalliant and tarlatan), and introduce you to 19th century Neapolitan songs and 20th century American novelists. This isn’t just a band it’s an education.
We begin with, well let’s be honest, “Shanty For The Arethusa” (it was a real ship BTW) is just that, a sea shanty, including details of the cargo, the destination and a warning about the sorts you’ll find on the crew. It’s a classic sea shanty that sailors sang to pass the time and get a bit boastful about themselves, a different stripe of folk song.
A number of the songs here have a Dickensian atmosphere about them, something that hovers around much The Decemberists music. “The Soldiering Life” (including its reference to bombazine, a fabric made from silk and wool used in 18th and 19th century mourning dresses if you didn’t know. And this alongside references to pantaloons and stevedores, it’s gorgeous stuff) and “The Chimbley Sweep” have this about them, but that atmosphere doesn’t take over the whole album.
The other thing we find on “Her Majesty” is Colin Meloy continuing to grow as a songwriter. There are many examples here, “Billy Liar”, “Los Angeles I’m Yours” and “The Gymnast High Above The Ground” boom-boom-boom after the opening sea shanty really are something else. And a little later there comes another boom-boom-boom with “Song For Myla Goldberg”, the aforementioned “The Soldiering Life” and my personal highlight, “Red Right Ankle”.
“Red Right Ankle” is absolutely breathtaking. It’s the exact style of guitar playing I wish I’d applied myself to its mastery (I’m more of the Joe Strummer school myself, all six strings at once or none at all), it is gloriously melodious and has a lyric that confuses and delights equally. A paean to a joint and its limbs and their reliance on each other, a verse about Gypsy Uncles and hideaways in the Pyrenees, another about those “boys that loved you”, very probably the same ones Springsteen sings about in “Thunder Road”, and the only use of the word ventricle I’ve yet to encounter in popular song. I’ll flag this as Colin Meloy’s first great song.
“I Was Meant For the Stage” and “As I Rise” close out the album in a gentle style.
Reading around blogs and message boards “Her Majesty” seems to fall way down the list of many fans favourites, it certainly isn’t their finest (which is also not saying it’s bad) but it has enough about it to ensure it gets a regular spin in my house. Oh and to save you the bother of searching, to be dalliant is to be flirtatious, tarlatan is another type of fabric, the 19th century Neapolitan song is "Funiculì, Funiculà" which is referenced in the song about 20th century author Myla Goldberg. Are you not now feeling educated ?
Red Right Ankle - https://youtu.be/axkyYrismAw