Picaresque – The Decemberists
Kill Rock Stars 425
Like others, I was first drawn to The Decemberists because they reminded me of the long-absent Neutral Milk Hotel. On their debut full-length, Castaways and Cutouts (2002), songwriter Colin Meloy drew from an impressively haunted world where a deep surrealism was bordered with personal revelation and precise fiction-writer details. On Her Majesty, The Decemberists, Meloy introduced a dramatic undercurrent that drew his compass in a more theatrical direction, simultaneously pointing towards The Decemberists’ unique voice. Last year’s ambitious The Tain EP found all of these forces in equal and powerful balance serving a song cycle loosely based on Irish folklore that was weird, tuneful, and emotionally rich.
It is this quartet of ideas that draws Picaresque — meaning an exaggerated, action-packed narrative — across The Decemberists’ landscape, beginning with a shofar blast and the stampeding of "The Infanta." Easily the album’s best track, Meloy sings of the coronation procession of a Spanish child princess. "Among five score pachyderm / All canopied and passenger’d / Sit the Duke and Duchess’s luscious young girls," his cinematic narrator bellows, while the band rolls underneath with a bolero charge. Unfortunately, over the course of the album’s remaining 10 songs, the balance is just kinda off, usually erring on the side of the over-the-top. Sometimes it works, such as "16 Military Wives," the quasi-Mod, uptempo first single. "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" is a lovely shanty ballad. Elsewhere, not so much.
Meloy is a precocious lyricist. He is unafraid to cast himself in a love story between a spy and a bureaucrat ("The Bagman's Gambit") or as a runaway teenage gigolo ("On the Bus Mall"). He is also fond of sweeping first-person proclamations: "I am a writer," he declares on "The Engine Diver," "a writer of fictions" (see also: Her Majesty The Decemberists’ "I Was Meant For the Stage"). And that’s all well and good, because music is drama (that’s what makes it different from somebody just telling you what they mean in plain, unrhyming English), but the orchestrations don’t always allow the listener to enter Meloy’s world fully. "The Engine Driver" itself is a sorta tame singalong.
"I found you, a tattoo'd tramp, a dirty daughter from the labor camp," he sings on "We Both Go Down Together" while the band proceeds with a patented R.E.M. minor key jangle (there are also overblown vaguely kettle-like drums, but we won't go there). A lot of the album suffers as such, the chord changes and melodies never quite as imaginative as the lyrics, Meloy coming off like a windmill-chasing Quixote charging earnestly across relatively sedate indie rock terrain.
The band tries their hand at two mini-epics — the seven-minute "The Bagman's Gambit" and the eight-minute "The Mariner's Revenge" — that are nice midway points between the focused sprawl of The Tain and the effects of shorter tunes. Neither is perfect, but both offer much fun. The former doesn’t have enough variation to justify the length of its arc, but works anyway. The latter is pretty much exactly as it sounds, Meloy spinning a well-set thread that begins and ends in the belly of a whale, and is highlighted by the vocal appearance of (now former) drummer Rachel Blumberg, very much the sweetly innocent Decemberists analogue to the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker.
The Decemberists' charms are peculiar, though, and not always logical, so perhaps this'll all make sense later. Certainly, some of my favorite songs off of Castaways and Cutouts didn’t bloom for me for some time. The music now entered somewhere in my consciousness, for now, I’ll just have to wait.