The Decemberists: The Mariner’s Revenge Song
I wrote previously about seeing Richard Thompson in England with my family. A few years later, we took our second, and to date, last, family European trip to Amsterdam. One of the highlights was seeing The Decemberists at the Paradiso, a legendary club that holds about 1500 people, standing, in a former church. The Stones, U2, Prince, The Police, Bowie and Pink Floyd have all played this relatively small, but wonderful, venue.
The Decemberists were a band that we were just getting into. I love them because of the complexity of their music, their literate lyrics, often based on myth, folklore or historical themes, and their willingness to embrace being pompous. Others, I know, hate them for exactly the same reasons. You know a band is a bit pretentious when their most recent album of new material is hailed as a move toward simplicity, but still contains lyrics such as “Hetty Green/Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab/(Know what I mean?)”
It was an excellent show, even though the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, making it a bit hard to see the stage, even for me, who is 6’ 1”. In addition to the great music, they are just fun to see. At one point, Colin Meloy, the lead singer, led the crowd in “mid-show calisthenics”. And later, the band and audience reenacted the 1667 Battle of Chatham, a successful Dutch attack on the British Navy. For me, that show turned The Decemberists from a band I liked into one of my favorites. And it was another musical experience that my whole family enjoyed together.
Despite the nautical theme, the band didn’t play “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” that night. Apparently, they had put it on hiatus for a while. It is, in many ways, the prototypical Decemberists song. It sounds like an old shanty, it is about adventures on the seas, takes place in the belly of a whale, and concerns violence and revenge. And it uses language not common in rock music, such as “rake and roustabout,” “consumptive,” “privateer,” “priory” and “magistrate.”
The song is sung by a young seaman to an older captain, in the belly of a whale. The captain doesn’t recognize the younger man, who reminds the older man of how he had taken advantage of the younger man’s mother, caused her to lose all her property and die. He tells the captain how the mother swore her son to obtain revenge on her deathbed. The younger man explains how he bided his time until he found the object of his revenge and hired on with a privateer to track down and avenge his mother. But just as he was about to be able to kill the evil doer, a whale attacked the ships and killed everyone except the narrator and his nemesis. At the end of the song, the narrator informs his companion:
It gives my heart great joy
To see your eyes fill with fear
So lean in close
And I will whisper
The last words you'll hear
I suspect that that the captain was pretty surprised.