When was the last time you heard a new album based on the great Irish epic of The Tain (or Tain Bo Cualnge), which tells of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the central epic of the Ulster mythology cycle? Don’t you dare say The Tain by mid-70’s Irish prog-rockers Horslips. You weren’t even born yet, smartass. But no matter, 20 years later comes the next stab at musically interpreting “the Irish Aeneid”, this time by Pacific Northwest indie rock orchestra the Decemberists. Whereas Horselips’ take was a fairly literal re-telling of the story (made most famous as translated by Irish poet Thomas Kinsella), the Decemberists’ reading is decidedly “loosely based”. The Tain EP was released by the fine Spanish label Acuarela, who have also issued exclusive recordings for artists such as the Clientele and Damien Jurado. Fans of the band’s well-educated musings for Kill Rock Stars imprint, or Irish literature, will find it worth their import-record dollar to seek this one out.
As interpreted by Colin Meloy and Co., The Tain is a single 18-minute song composed of five movements. As far as I can tell from a brief, Cliff’s Notes-style synopsis of the original, the Decemberists tell an abstract, impressionist version of The Tain‘s events. I’m wary trying to summarize the original here; one of the ways in which the Tain EP succeeds is in piquing one’s interest to read Kinsella or another translation, as one should. Suffice it to say, The Tain is full of bad people doing bad things, flawed heroes who get swept up in the badness, blood, guts, war, adultery, cattle—all of the things that would corrupt today’s youth if they heard word of it.
The Decemberists recount the sordid affair as a series of short texts ascribed to various characters. “Part I” belongs to the Crone, who reprises her role at the end of the song. The theme that accompanies the Crone fascinates most for its sinister melody, loud/soft dynamics, and moody Black Sabbath-like stomp. Drummer Rachel Blumberg is exhilarating, a key component of the different dramatic effects they achieve. “Part II” stutter-steps in soon after, with a Husband threatening violence and a Captain responding “In this place called heavenly / You were born here”. Colin Meloy’s keening, sonorous voice does sound for all the world like Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and I’m sure he’s tired of the comparison, but it’s not an imitation.
Jenny Conlee’s organ melee segues into the somber “Part III”, which is marked by ringing electric guitar, and a melody in the verse that recalls early Songs: Ohia. Jason Molina has also cited Black Sabbath as an influence, so the connection’s no coincidence. “Part III” belongs to the Soldier. Judging from the fatalism of the lyrics, he fights for the losing side, having to face the invincible warrior Cu Chulainn: “From the lee of the wall / He comes in chain and chariot / And all his eunuchs in thrall / Can scarce lift his line and lariat”. The verses push towards a stoic chorus, “Here come loose the hounds / To blow me down / On this stretch of ground / I’ll lay me down”, answered by the Chorus of Waifs. This central piece is particularly moving, as it demonstrates both the heroism and waste of a rank-and-file soldier’s sacrifice.
The waltz-time “Part IV” was written by Blumberg, who also sings the haunting Widow’s piece. Between the lamenting verses are gypsy-like instrumental sections where the band pull out their tin toys, bottles, accordion, glockenspiel, and other gizmos. It’s a nice change to have Blumberg’s soft coo, and a different pace and tone. “Part V” segues in via martial drum rolls, over which Meloy sings a dialogue between a Woman and her Daughter using the melody from “Part I”. Finally, the Crone returns with a closing limerick, “And now we’ve seen your powers / Softly stretch the hours / You’re a fickle little twister / Are you sweet on your sister? / As now you go wandering home”. The EP, though still enjoyable for those unfamiliar with the Tain Bo Cualnge, is even richer once you learn the details. The Cattle Raid of Cooley was a war predicated on pride, jealousy, and greed, its story full of legendary heroes and villains. The Decemberists’ Tain is about the nameless individuals whose lives were swept up as they fought and mourned. As it was in 1974, 2004 seems the right time to resurrect this story, as its tragic themes unfortunately never go out of style.