Decibully's "City of Festivals" Turns 10: An Appreciation

Oct. 23, 2013
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I can’t recall the exact wording, but there’s a great quip about the way age shapes how we identify with music: Everybody believes that the greatest period for music just happened to occur when they were young. There’s a lot of truth to that, of course. Music never sounds quite so thrilling or important as it does during youth, where you're experiencing it for the first time and still fleshing out your values and ideas about the world. I try to keep that bias in mind when I consider the music from my formative years, but it’s hard to be objective when nostalgia comes into play. On some level, for instance, I understand that it’s not a coincidence that I regard the early ’00s as a renaissance era for indie-rock while I’m mostly lukewarm on today’s indie-rock—I was in college in the early '00s, so of course I remember that music more fondly—but that understanding doesn’t dampen my conviction any.

At least I can say with reasonable certainty that my affection for Decibully’s 2003 full-length City of Festivals doesn’t stem from any sort of youthful nostalgia, since I only first bought a copy of the album two years ago, long after college and shortly after Decibully had already broken up. As I suspect was the case with a lot of locals, I had always taken Decibully for granted during their long run. At their peak, the group played out so often that I never considered their shows appointment viewing, since I’d grown used to seeing them every few months or so.

It was only after they broke up that I came to appreciate what an irreplaceable band they were. Decibully released several solid albums, all of them ambitious, thoughtfully crafted things, but City of Festivals is the one I revisit the most, in part because it so perfectly captures everything that wowed me about indie-rock in the early ’00s: the harmonic abundance, the unexpected songwriting shifts and twists, the sheer wealth of ideas and instrumentation. Some of City of Festivals' best songs had appeared the year before in a more skeletal form on the band’s self-released You Might Be A Winner. You Might Be A Loser, and that’s telling—City of Festivals feels like a second draft, a refinement of ideas that were plenty promising the first time around.

Like quite a few underrated Midwestern bands, Decibully were signed to Polyvinyl Records, an association that seemed significant at the time but ultimately didn't do much for them. They probably would have fit in great on Saddle Creek Records, where another community of maturing emo kids an eight-hour drive away had started making lush, country-leaning albums, but in all likelihood the brass at that label had probably never even heard of them. In the early ’00s, to be a band in Milwaukee was to exist mostly in isolation, and City of Festivals is in many ways an album about that isolation. It’s a love letter to the city that simultaneously embraces and constrains its own, enabling its inhabitants to grow fat and lazy on creature comforts.

All the characters singer William Seidel introduces on City of Festivals are united by a shared quarter-life inertia. They work in kitchens, struggle with commitment issues and dream of living “like children, without children of our own.” They’re all trying to preserve what little they have instead of grabbing more. “I’m still waiting for the strength to get out of here, on this frozen lake where the ice don’t break out at all,” Seidel sings on “Holy Angel Choir,” “but the hardest part is convincing myself to leave here / because I’ve got my friends and my ghosts and my simplest desires.” On Chutes Too Narrow, the great Shins album released just days before City of Festivals, James Mercer mused on a similar emotional stagnancy, lamenting “It’s hard to leave all those moments behind.” It turns out it's even harder when you’re spoiled by cheap rent, carefree jobs and the temptation of a life without responsibility.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of City of Festivals, and it goes without saying that there won't be any deluxe reissues or anything like that. The album is streaming on Spotify, though, albeit in a somewhat busted form that cuts off the end of several tracks. A better option is purchasing a CD/mp3 bundle of the album with instant download from Polyvinyl for just five bucks. It's really well worth it, especially if, like me, you missed the record the first time around.


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