How good are The Decemberists? Considering the arcing, untethered trend of their first three records, a better question might be: How great will they become? While much has been made of the band's niche sound a singular fusion of Dickensian lyrics with ear-sticking, prettified pop sea-shanties an easier reference point for the uninitiated might be a less-damaged Neutral Milk Hotel, or perhaps The Pogues if Shane MacGowan had gone sober, attended grad school at Oxford and settled for a miserable day job spicing up dusty, verbose history volumes.
With frontman Colin Meloy's first two effortless efforts, the crystalline debut Castaways and Cutouts and romanticized follow-up Her Majesty The Decemberists, he's penned two career-defining records that sculpt out a signature sound within the American pop landscape, both longplayers so jam-packed with jocular Victorian allegories and a sweetly ear-pleasing joie de vivre as to seem ready to burst at their accomplished seams. For this latest recording, The Decemberists take their love of conceptual composition to new and, in keeping with the bandís raison d'être, celebrated old heights. The Tain is a single song, broken down into five musical stanzas, that structurally recalls, in its distended theme restatement and dramatic rise-and-fall throes, many a Pink Floyd album-opener. Pick your trip: Atom Heart Mother, Wish You Were Here and Animals all lead off with an epic, Tain-like bloat, but it's the tortured protagonist and theatrical metal-mashing of The Wall that this multi-part tune more closely resembles.
In the greatest stylistic leap yet for these Anglophilic allusion-ists, Meloy
takes the "Tain Bo Cuailinge" the epicenter of Ireland's gargantuan eighth-century
Ulster Cycle of Heroic Tales and twists it into a brackish and brilliant
18-minute hard-rock symphony, replete with tuneful Ozzfest riffage, ominous twilight
tonality and lyrics that achieve a new level of sophistication for this notoriously
literate gang. "My name is Leslie Anne Levine/ My mother birthed me down a dry
ravine," Meloy sang at the beginning of Castaways and Cutouts, establishing
early his proclivity for speaking either to or as a despondent, downtrodden lead
character, and the trend continues to even greater effect here. The Tain opens
with a carefully measured, Ozzy-approved acoustic guitar line, an indie-approved "Iron
Man" sans amplification. "Here upon this pillow/ Made of reed and willow," Meloy
chimes in, speaking as the Crone in the record's creepy bookend verses, "You're
a fickle little twister/ Are you sweet on your sister?/ Your fallow won't leave
Immediately after this limey limerick ends, the band wraps a bombastic accompaniment around the opening guitar melody, and trades sonic bombs with Meloy's sardonic barbs before melting off dreamily into familiar Castaways territory. This dexterous control of dynamics is what sets The Tain apart from their previous work: After a rocks-off second movement that sounds like Jeff Mangum fronting Led Zeppelin, and a beautiful middle section that recalls the willowing ballads on which the band built its name, drummer Rachel Blumberg reprises her role as the vocal counterpoint to Meloy's sideways grate. Evoking her memorable turn as an Oliver Twist orphan on Her Majesty's "The Chimbley Sweep," Blumberg takes the songwriting reins from Meloy for the record's fourth piece, a tragicomic war-widow's lament whispered in false falsetto by Blumberg over an ersatz carnival waltz of glockenspiel, accordion and Hammond organ. Baited by her undying trio of snares, Meloy snatches back the mic and leads the band through The Tain's closing coda, a reworking of the opening theme framing Hendrixian, "Manic Depression"-like triples between Blumberg's fervent skin-work and Meloy's spate of spite, the latter spitting in perfect iambic pentameter, "Darling dear/ What have you done/ Your clothes are torn/ Your makeup runs."
It's poetry in manic motion, a frantic finish that fans of The Decemberists'
Manchester-by-way-of-Missoula style never could've seen coming; in toto, The
Tain belies its EP exterior with a surprising and salty 18-minute odyssey,
leaving listeners sated, spent and still salivating for more.