Flavorwire Exclusive: Tarot Cards Inspired by Decemberists Lyrics

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(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

This week, The Decemberists release their seventh album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The album, like 2011’s The King Is Dead, finds Colin Meloy toning down what came to be known as the band’s signature lyrical style throughout the ’00s: tragedies in bygone eras, from murders and drownings to rapes and blood feuds, illustrated by a ten-dollar vocabulary. Instead, Meloy focuses more on simplified folk tales, though there’s no doubt he remains a narrative songwriter whose work is deeply influenced by strife and sorrow.

To celebrate Meloy’s signature style, we used some of his best-known characters and moralistic tales to create a set of eight original tarot cards based on Decemberists lyrics. While imagery around some of these characters exists already, via album artwork from illustrator (and Meloy’s wife) Carson Ellis, designer and illustrator Missy Kayko worked with Flavorwire to develop new visualizations inspired by Meloy’s lyrics, American folk art, and the tarot tradition.

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

For the main storyline explored on 2006’s The Crane Wife, the band found inspiration in a Japanese folktale in which an injured crane is nursed back to help by a poor man. His good duty is repaid many times over, when a beautiful woman shows up at his doorstep. They fall in love and marry. In need of money, the crane wife offers to weave beautiful silk and make clothing to sell at market, under the stipulation that the husband never watch her weave the silk. The business is a success, and at the urging of the greedy husband, the crane wife weaves more and more silk. While the husband doesn’t see that his wife’s health is slowly declining, he comes to know the truth about her magical silk soon enough. He sees a crane plucking her own feathers and weaving them into the loom. The crane wife sees him and flies away, leaving for good.

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

“O Valencia!” explores a storyline separate from that of The Crane Wife, but it’s no less tragic. The song tells the story of star-crossed lovers from feuding families, not unlike Romeo and Juliet. The main difference is that Valencia’s brother inadvertently shoots her while trying to murder her lover, thus killing Valencia. The song is sung from the perspective of the lover.

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

“Leslie Anne Levine,” the opening track from the band’s 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts, tells the story of a baby who lived mere hours in a ditch, following the death of her mother in childbirth. She becomes a ghost baby who haunts the area (and seems to become friendly with a chimney sweep in the process, though that part is still up for interpretation). “We Both Go Down Together,” from 2005’s Picaresque, is a prequel to “Leslie Anne Levine” in the sense that it tells the story of how her parents died. After a young man from a wealthy family impregnates a “tattooed tramp,” his plan is for both of them to jump off the cliffs of Dover and commit suicide. He goes through with it, but the young mother does not, as we see in “Leslie Anne Levine,” though she ultimately dies anyway.

Eli, whom we meet on Picaresque, is an ordinary young man who sells goods from his wheelbarrow, until his love dies in an unspecified manner. Unable to keep living, Eli takes his sorrows to the river and drowns to death in corduroy.

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

The crowning jewel of The Decemberists’ impressive collection of cautionary tales has to be their 2009 rock opera, The Hazards of Love. The album tells the story of a young woman named Margaret who finds an injured fawn in the forest, but when she stops to aid it, the bird shape-shifts into a man named William. They make love and she becomes pregnant, but they’re happy together — until William’s mother, The Forest Queen, discovers them. The Queen is none too pleased, seeing as she rescued William from the human world as a baby and gave him the powers of immortality, in exchange for his woodland-creature status. Still, the Queen agrees to allow William one night as a mortal man alongside Margaret, after which the forest will reclaim him.

But, it’s not this simple. The Rake, a widower who murdered his three children, kidnaps Margaret. With the Queen’s supernatural assistance (she parts a river for him), The Rake escapes William, who is told he must exchange his own life for safe passage across the river. But suddenly, the ghosts of The Rake’s children appear, seeking revenge. William and Margaret escape together, vowing to marry by drowning themselves in the river before William is returned to his woodland state. They escape the “hazards of love” through death.

Their stories are represented by the cards on the following pages.

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)

(Illustrations by Missy Kayko for Flavorwire)