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Every song is a novella for The Decemberists. The band has released a new collection

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO THE MORNING")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) There's a kind of languor in the morning, as we breathe and lift our eyes.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

They've written sea shanties and folk operas, heavy metal epics and jaunty odes to chimney sweeps, doomed mariners and forest dwellers. Every song is a novella for The Decemberists. It's taken six years for the band to produce a new collection, but today, they release "As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again." I asked singer and songwriter Colin Meloy to begin at the end. The album closer is a 19-minute prog rock ballad of sorts about the patron saint of France Joan of Arc. It's called "Joan In The Garden."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOAN IN THE GARDEN")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) In a book I found Joan in the garden.

COLIN MELOY: For the most part, I feel like I'm a pretty tidy little pop folk songwriter, but occasionally, I feel this need to sprawl a little bit, and it had been a while, I feel like, since we had done something like that. Going back to 2017, before our last record, I had this idea, this germ of an idea of investigating some aspect of the story of Joan of Arc for a song. I had just finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch's book, "The Book of Joan..."

SCHMITZ: Right.

MELOY: ...Which has this very unique and very bizarre take on the Joan of Arc story. And I finished that and realized I didn't know that much about Joan of Arc. And so I went back. I read a couple more books and learned about her life and story, and it was really fascinating. I needed to do something with this new knowledge, and I guess I just sort of inevitably channeled it towards a song - and I feel like it needed more than just your typical 3 1/2, 4 minutes to deal with those issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOAN IN THE GARDEN")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) I don't remember what I ought to be. I only know what's right. I'm suspended from the orrery, bursting into light.

SCHMITZ: I immediately loved this song. I mean, it was - it's a fantastic sort of three-part epic. There's this ballad section, and then it builds up, and then you've got this sound piece with people speaking in the background for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DECEMBERISTS SONG, "JOAN IN THE GARDEN")

SCHMITZ: And then it just kind of goes into this rock opera ending. It's quite something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOAN IN THE GARDEN")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Over stone and grapevine, over the souls on the breadline.

SCHMITZ: Have you played this live yet?

MELOY: Yeah. We've actually just come off four weeks on the road, where we played it, I think, every night as the encore.

SCHMITZ: And how did people respond?

MELOY: It's really hard to gauge. You know, it's a new song. It's a big ask of an audience.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

MELOY: I think I knew that we were going to be playing it on the road. And, of course, we were going to do it faithfully, and we were going to do this five minutes of, essentially, noise.

SCHMITZ: Right.

MELOY: And I kind of imagined - I foresaw turning around after that point and seeing, like, a half-empty theater, you know?

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

MELOY: But to my surprise, people really stick it out, which I think is a testament to our audience.

SCHMITZ: Was this intentionally 19 minutes long because Joan of Arc was executed at the age of 19?

MELOY: Oh, right. Somebody has pointed that out to me.

SCHMITZ: So this actually was a coincidence?

MELOY: That's a total coincidence.

SCHMITZ: That's where it ended, and...

MELOY: Yeah, it just landed there on its own.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DECEMBERISTS SONG, "JOAN IN THE GARDEN")

SCHMITZ: We just talked about the last track on the album. I want to talk about the first track on the album. This album kicks off with a very poppy earworm of a song called "Burial Ground."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURIAL GROUND")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Oh, Len, come down and meet at the burial ground.

SCHMITZ: I heard that the melody of this song came to you in a dream?

MELOY: Yeah, I feel like that happens every once in a while. It's not super common, but I'll, in a dream, be singing a song, or I'll be performing it - and, of course, in the dream, it's an incredible song, you know?

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) Of course.

MELOY: World-changing, hit, No. 1 song. When this does happen and you wake up and you actually remember the song, you know, I always make an effort to try to play it on guitar. And more often than not, it's a dud - like, it doesn't really hold up in the...

SCHMITZ: Right.

MELOY: ...Cold light of day and reality and consciousness, but that hook, for some reason, did feel good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURIAL GROUND")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Ooh, woah. Ooh, woah. Oh, Len, come down and meet at the burial ground.

SCHMITZ: You're often drawn to telling stories from 500 or 600 years ago of royals and sailors and serfs, in, you know, past songs. But there is a song on this album, "America Made Me," that is obviously a bit more current.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA MADE ME")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) America made me of brick and coal and rubber.

SCHMITZ: Tell us about this song. What inspired this song?

MELOY: It definitely speaks to my experience of wrestling with my own Americanness and what it means to be an American and my discomfort with that but also wrapped up in, you know, identity and pride, as well, this being my home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA MADE ME")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) America made me, so, America, save me from myself. You long to. I can tell.

MELOY: I think it can sound sort of anthemic. In some ways, it sounds like kind of a patriotic anthem, if you listen to it without following the lyrics. But you dig a little deeper, and it's clearly about somebody's worry about not belonging, and kind of this weird discomfort with oneself.

SCHMITZ: How is the state of your relationship with America?

MELOY: I think it's fraught, but, like, you know, I think it's always been fraught, and I tussle with it constantly. I think a lot of us do, particularly now. So I think it's too soon to say, and I don't really quite understand it, and I feel like the song is the closest I've come to an answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA MADE ME")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Something to sleep, something to sleep.

SCHMITZ: That's Colin Meloy. His band The Decemberists' new album is called "As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again." Thanks, Colin, and congratulations on the album.

MELOY: Yeah, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA MADE ME")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Oh no, something to sleep. Just a little something to sleep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.