The Mariner's Revenge Song

Album: Picaresque (2005)
Play Video


  • This song is about a young boy whose mother takes in a teenager who turns out to be a wreck. The teenager ruins the boy and his mother's life, as the mother dies and the boy gets left out on the streets. The boy grows up and receives a job as a mariner aboard a boat. Aboard the boat, he battles a giant whale, and eventually the entire crew ends up stomached. The boy survives, and by some odd chance, the teenager he once knew a long time ago ends up the only other survivor with him inside the whale. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Quinn - Eugene, OR
  • This song is a trademark Decemberists act, being their most popular number at live performances. The typical performance line-up: 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. This ensemble is accompanied sometimes by a prop whale's jaw, with the audience being encouraged to scream in terror during the whale attack.
  • The album version of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" was recorded live at Prescott Church in Portland in one take around a single microphone. The track was produced by Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. To achieve the effect of volume control for the instruments, band members stepped closer or farther away from the mike relative to their part. The drums had to be all the way at the back of the room. This process is even documented in the DVD The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook.

    Chris Funk recalled to Uncut: "We were being naive about the recording process. We thought a bigger space bought a bigger sound - not true at all! It's by no stretch of the imagination our best sounding record, but you can really hear the room. It doesn't sound like anything else we've made."
  • Pitchfork Magazine placed Picaresque #143 on their list of the top 200 albums of the 2000s.
  • Just how indie are The Decemberists? Salon magazine hails them as the second coming of Neutral Milk Hotel, while Guardian UK raved, "For fans of chiming, literate, lovelorn pop, Picaresque is an absolute treasure trove." With literary, story-telling ballads sung along with mandolins and accordions, The Decemberists are an excellent example of the kind of group you never would have heard about without the indie scene and the music blogosphere.
  • This wildly eccentric song was The Decemberists' first live anthem. Colin Melroy recalled to Uncut: "Chris Walla didn't want to put 'The Mariner's Revenge Song' on the record. We were like, 'What are you talking about?' It's part of our identity, that theatrical, campy quality, but sometimes I feel he was right. I love and hate that song."

Comments: 9

  • Alex from PortlandThis was one plot summary that I thought was slightly more accurate:
    The story begins as the narrator, one of two survivors stranded in the belly of a whale, explains to his companion how (unknown to the companion) their lives were interwoven.

    The narrator details how, when he was three, his widowed mother fell in love with the companion — then an eighteen-year-old roustabout — who was charming at first but was later revealed as a gambler and womanizer. The roustabout then disappeared, leaving only his gambling debts and the mother sick with consumption. The magistrate repossessed their estate to pay for the debts and the mother later died, leaving the boy an orphan. On her deathbed, the boy's mother 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, naked, clawing at the ceiling of his grave."

    Fifteen years later, having found work cleaning a priory, the boy hears of a whaler captain who matches the roustabout's description and is known for "wanton cruelty". The next day 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 roustabout.

    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 the roustabout to listen closely, as what he will be told next "will be 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 over the roustabout.
  • Reilly from Hurley, NyIt was a sailor from the roustabout's ship who was confessing, not the roustabout himself. He recognized the description of the roustabout ("the captain of his ship, who matched you toe to tip")
  • Evin from Cork, Ireland'Hamlet meets Moby Dick' is how i'd describe it...
  • Red from Nowhere, IaK. is correct, the whaler is confessing ("penitent whaler"). The roustabout is not the person confessing, it's a member of the roustabout's crew--the roustabout is the captain ("who matched you toe to tip". The narrator goes to sea with a privateer (pirate) and after 20 months at sea, when they have the other ship in sight and the narrator is "getting his muskets clean" (preparing to attack) the whale comes up and capsizes both ships. Everyone dies but the narrator and the roustabout. The narrator tels this tale to the captain/roustabout (and we listeners) and now he will have his revenge. Quinn is in the ballpark but he's sitting in the wrong bleachers when it comes to this review. I'm not sure where people get the idea that they were on the same ship--it says quite clearly that he went looking for the whaler on a privateer's ship.
  • Matthew from Calgaryi love the chorus of this song
  • K from Rock, HiI thought he overhears one of the man's sailors confessing then follows him and works the ship on which the man is captain....
  • Ben from Orillia, Ontario, CanadaMuch better, Dru. Still some "questionables" though... After leaving the priory he joins up with a privateer to chase down the roustabout. When they've finaly cought up with him, after 20 months at sea, and thier ships are almost within bording distance (starboard flank a-beam) the whale comes from beneath and eats both ships. I'm pretty sure about that anyway... I never cought that about the roustabout confessing his sins! I thought he was just having a conversation with the priest. Your'se makes much more sense. thanks for helping me to understand that part.

    Also, I'm just clearing up the first post a little further. The mother and the roustabout are definately lovers. The boy talks about the sheets still being warm from his father when his mother brings this new man into her bed... not a big change, but I'm pretty sure that's how it is.

    Also, it's just my personal perception of the end of the song, but I also imagined the boy killing the roustabout with his bare hands (prolly by choking) when the music that his mother's final words were sang to plays. I suppose it can be looked at fomr different angles, but I imagined him driven by bloodlust, ending the roustabouts life brutaly and with much blood. ...hehehe
  • Ashlee from HobartI thought that he hears a sailor talking about his captain who turns out the be the roustabout then he joins another crew to find him, then when he does both crews die except the narrator and the other captain (the roustabout). I could be wrong thought because i haven't listened to this song in awhile. lol
  • Dru from Melbourne, AustraliaOh for goodness sakes! Quinn - did you even listen to the lyrics?? The above synopsis is wrong both factually and fails to grasp the whole point of the song (ie the song's title is REVENGE).

    The song opens set in the belly of a whale with the narrator confronting a man who runied his mother's life.

    Oh for goodness sakes! Quinn - did you even listen to the lyrics?? The above synopsis is wrong factually and fails to grasp the whole point of the song (ie the song's title is REVENGE).

    The song opens set in the belly of a whale with the narrator confronting a man who ruined his mother's life.

    The tale is then told of an opportunististic drunkard and gambling roustabout. The widowed mother was charmed into taking the roustabout in. He runs down her health, spends all her money and leaves her with is debts. She loses her tiny estate to pay these off. On her death bed she asks her son to avenge (rather brutally) her death.

    The song then tells of the son?s avengeance. After living on the streets for 15 years he is given menial work in the church. One night he overhears a cruel sea captain confessing his sins and realises it is the roustabout. He leaves the priory and joins the roustabout?s whaling ship.

    After 20 months at sea, on the eve of his preparation to confront the roustabout, the ship is attacked by a whale (a neat little side-plot of avengeance in itself) and miraculously only the boy and the roustabout survive - albeit caught in the belly of the whale. The revenge is then effected - not by the hand of the boy - but rather through his delight in watching the fear in the roustabout?s eyes in the face of imminent death. His revenge is complete when he says to the roustabout that the story of revenge will be the last words he will hear?
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Muhammad Ali: His Musical Legacy and the Songs he Inspired

Muhammad Ali: His Musical Legacy and the Songs he InspiredSong Writing

Before he was the champ, Ali released an album called I Am The Greatest!, but his musical influence is best heard in the songs he inspired.

Alice Cooper

Alice CooperFact or Fiction

How well do you know this shock-rock harbinger who's been publicly executed hundreds of times?

Concert Disasters

Concert DisastersFact or Fiction

Ozzy biting a dove? Alice Cooper causing mayhem with a chicken? Creed so bad they were sued? See if you can spot the real concert mishaps.

Ben Kowalewicz of Billy Talent

Ben Kowalewicz of Billy TalentSongwriter Interviews

The frontman for one of Canada's most well-known punk rock bands talks about his Eddie Vedder encounter, Billy Talent's new album, and the importance of rock and roll.

Spooner Oldham

Spooner OldhamSongwriter Interviews

His keyboard work helped define the Muscle Shoals sound and make him an integral part of many Neil Young recordings. Spooner is also an accomplished songwriter, whose hits include "I'm Your Puppet" and "Cry Like A Baby."

The Fratellis

The FratellisSongwriter Interviews

Jon Fratelli talks about the band's third album, and the five-year break leading up to it.