A friend recently asked me to describe The Decemberists to her and, after thinking
about it for what seemed like an eternity, I offered this one word reply: "Accordions." Yeah.
It is an embarrassingly inept answer (in my defense, beer and bowling
were involved), and it casts serious doubt on my ability to write intelligently
about music. But I've been giving that question a lot of thought lately,
and this is what I've come up with. Take the look of Edward Gorey drawings,
the spirit of J. D. Salinger characters, the feel of The Royal Tenenbaums,
and the atmosphere of pre-war Europe; throw in some community-theater
antics and a healthy does of maritime lore, and you'll come pretty close
to getting at the sound of The Decemberists.
And if that all sounds a bit too precocious, or if you've stayed away from the group because you found their heavily literate brand of indie-rock (whatever that signifies) too daunting the band's name is taken from the Decembrists, a group of Russian revolutionaries who conspired against Nicholas I in 1825 well, then, get over yourself and pick up a copy of Picaresque, the group's most recent release.
As the title implies, the third full-length album from The Decemberists finds
them moving through a landscape of rascals and rogues, a fantastic world that
seems impossibly remote yet incredibly close at hand. From the opening horn blasts
of "The Infanta" to the closing chords of the tender "Of Angels and Angles," Colin
Meloy and his cohorts conjure a range of vivid characters a Spanish princess,
a sailor consumed by thoughts of revenge, teenage prostitutes, and a host of
failed and forlorn lovers. And while this isn't much of a lyrical departure from
their two previous LPs, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty, The
Decemberists, the group achieves a fuller, more muscular sound this time
around. To a certain extent this lush, visually evocative sound is due to the
addition of John Moen on drums (he replaces Rachel Blumberg,
since 2002) and Petra Haden on violin and vocals. Moen, in particular, brings
a certain playful vitality to the songs, most notably on "The Sporting Life" a
bittersweet tribute to failed athletes everywhere where his opening beat
contains a buoyant echo of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life."
Overall, the group is more mature and accomplished on Picaresque, as revealed
in Meloy's songwriting. Still focusing on characters who live on the edges of
our (and their) lives, he imbues his songs with more sympathy and humanity than
before. Rather than highlighting what makes his characters quirky or colorful,
Meloy explores what makes these people human, fragile. "On the Bus Mall" a
bubbling, shimmering song about teenage runaways who discover the particular
benefits of prostitution manages to balance the sordid (the sordid is
always lurking beneath the surface of Meloy's songs) with the touching. "And
here in our hovel/ We fuse like a family," Meloy sings over Jenny Conlee's exquisite
organ, suggesting that even prostitutes need a sense of community, a place to
feel safe and warm.
For those worried that, in the face of their growing maturity, Meloy and company
have abandoned their musical hijinks and daring wordplay, fear not. All the typical
Decemberists tricks are present here. "The Infanta," the album's opening track,
is the musical equivalent of a royal procession (appropriate, since the song
describes the celebration of a Spanish princess), complete with elephants, dukes,
and concubines. Rhyming "palanquin" with "elephant," as Meloy does in the song's
opening lines, is ballsy, to say the least. "The Mariner's Revenge Song," an
eight-minute epic that threatens to go completely off the rails midway through,
finds the group in cherished territory relating a high-spirited tale of
revenge on the high seas that ends in the belly of a whale. (When I saw this
song performed live recently, it did jump the tracks by the end of the
song Moen was lying on the ground in front of his drum kit, wildly beating the
floor tom, which he held between his legs). Over a jaunty accordion line, Meloy
begins "We are two mariners/ Our ship's sole survivors/ In this belly of a
whale," and the song takes off from there.
Picaresque is full of pleasant surprises and sonic pleasures, and I don't want to spoil any more of them; part of the joy of the album is the way it reveals these to listeners. This is The Decemberists' strongest release to date, and proves that the group's unique thesaurus-rock has a bright future.