The Mariner's Revenge Song

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"The Mariner's Revenge Song"
Song by The Decemberists
from the album Picaresque
ReleasedMarch 22, 2005 (US)
RecordedAugust 2004–September 2004
GenreProgressive folk, indie rock, folk rock
LabelKill Rock Stars
Songwriter(s)Colin Meloy
Producer(s)The Decemberists, Christopher Walla

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" is a song in the form of a nautical ballad by The Decemberists from their 2005 album Picaresque.

Plot summary[edit]

The story begins as the narrator, one of two survivors stranded in the belly of a whale, explains to his companion how their lives were interwoven.

The narrator details how, when he was three, his widowed mother was charmed by and took in a man — then an eighteen-year-old "rake and...roustabout" — charming at first but later revealed as a gambler and womanizer. The rake then disappeared, leaving the narrator's mother to die of tuberculosis in penury after their home was seized to pay off the debts the man left behind. On her deathbed, she instructs the boy to avenge her death, telling him:

Find him, bind him,
tie him to a pole
and break his fingers
to splinters.
Drag him to a hole
until he wakes up,
clawing at the ceiling of his grave.

Fifteen years later, having found work cleaning a priory, the narrator hears of a cruel whaler captain who matches the rake's description; he joins a privateer ship to hunt him down. After 20 months at sea, the privateer crew spots the whaling ship, but a giant whale attacks both ships before they are able to board. Everyone is killed except the narrator and the rake.

The narrator then tells the man who ruined his mother's life that it must have been by "providence" that only they survived, and cautions him to listen closely to "the last words [he] will hear". Though the lyrics end here, the musical theme representing the mother's instructions is repeated several times in escalating tempo, implying the culmination of the narrator's pyrrhic victory.

Performance history[edit]

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" has been one of the Decemberists' most popular at live performances. It had been played at virtually every live show as an encore since its release until the 2006 tour. At this point, the band swore off playing it at nearly all of the shows, saying that they were giving it a break for a while.

When played live, the song utilizes a characteristic variety of instruments, with Chris Funk on mandolin, Nate Query on stand-up bass and bowed bass, Colin Meloy on vocals and guitar, John Moen on floor tom, and Jenny Conlee on accordion. The band usually brings out a large whale prop, encouraging the audience to "scream like you're being swallowed by a whale" during the part of the song when the whale attacks the ships.

On March 21, during their "Twilight in the Fearful Forest Tour 2007" at The Landmark Lowes Theater in Jersey City, New Jersey, the song was "revived" and brought back from retirement as the last song played in the regular set. Colin Meloy said that they were playing it for all the people who never experienced the song live. The band continued to play it throughout the tour, and has continued to play it regularly.


The band has stated that the song was recorded in one take around a single microphone. The various band members stepped towards the mic and back to control the audio level of their instrument. Drummer Rachel Blumberg had to stand much farther away because of the relative loudness of the drums.

The song, and most of the album, was recorded between August–September 2004 at an old church in the Decemberists' home town (Prescott Church, Portland). Footage of the recording process can be found on the DVD The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook.