Sixteen years ago I interviewed a young American musician whose band had just signed to Rough Trade. We met in a café in west London, and he had with him a bag of records he’d just bought. In that bag were a handful of classic albums from the English folk revival, and in the intervening years Colin Meloy has steered the Decemberists to a frankly unlikely level of success, even topping the US album charts with The King Is Dead. Over three April weekends they have been performing shows to mark their 20th anniversary (which...

Sixteen years ago I interviewed a young American musician whose band had just signed to Rough Trade. We met in a café in west London, and he had with him a bag of records he’d just bought. In that bag were a handful of classic albums from the English folk revival, and in the intervening years Colin Meloy has steered the Decemberists to a frankly unlikely level of success, even topping the US album charts with The King Is Dead. Over three April weekends they have been performing shows to mark their 20th anniversary (which was actually last year, but pandemic and all that), which highlighted just what an idiosyncratic band they are.

The English folk came through in the beautiful ‘January Hymn’, but also in one of Meloy’s other loves — the prog-metal side of folk. The middle of the set was devoted to ‘The Tain’, an 18-minute extrapolation of Irish mythology with multiple narrative voices, the kind of thing that has hardcore fans nudging each other to boast about who loves it most. I’ve always hated it and I hated it here. The Decemberists are, I think, the only band I adore who have a number of songs I actively despise, but part of what makes them special is the depth of their catalog and not knowing where they might delve into it on any particular night. And here, by way of compensation, came the fabulous ‘16 Military Wives’, the terrific ‘The Soldiering Life’, the gorgeous ‘June Hymn’. I can swallow the bits I don’t like in return for the bits I love to pieces. Truly, there’s nowt so queer as folk.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.