What would we do without Colin Meloy? Ever the muse for songwriters and storytellers alike, Meloy carries his voice all over history, seamlessly adapting a new persona with each blissful track that passes. From the onset of Castaways and Cutouts, the entire Decemberists clan stood on a solitary plane in the current indie pop landscape, drawing unfair comparisons to a band far inferior; Her Majesty the Decemberists only furthered the remarkable distance between them and their peers. Picaresque, like any great collection of short stories, confronts a cadre of times and places and captures the sound of each accordingly. The puppeteer behind such extravagant genre, our beloved Meloy, comes away from Picaresque just peachy—he leads The Decemberists to victory, unveiling a stronger, more confident voice while in the process upping his considerable songwriting talents.
Each track is more decorated, giving the songs a genuinely detailed, vivid imagery—the ominous drudge that pounds the background of “From My Own True Love” when Meloy mentions his “rain-swept town,” conjuring a horizon filling with storm clouds, for example. It’s also important to note that while the band’s first two albums gained a sort of cult fandom and notoriety for its often deliberate quirkiness, Meloy has for the most part dropped that crutch. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” aside, cast away is the kitsch and idiosyncratic inflection that has prevented the group from reaching the type of audience they deserve. With a closer hand to the heart, Meloy has given this new collection a little more soul and feeling—exemplified in the blooming “The Sporting Life,” which is the bounciest little piece of adolescent outcastedness; and the melancholy of “The Bagman’s Gambit” alike. “The Engine Driver” (mp3) is the band’s most sentimental and fully-realized song to date—disguising himself as a lovelorn author trying to write someone out of his mind, Meloy pulls all the right strings. And then comes the ace—the addition of Petra Haden, who chirps her way behind Meloy in the song’s climactic finale—just one of a harmonious blend of backup vocals and swelling harmonies that carries the song from beautiful to angelic.
Much like their previous releases, Picaresque bogs down in the middle, falling into a slower pace. We could stand to see more of the bounce and strut of “July, July,” and Picaresque commits to a stronger backbone off the bat. After “The Sporting Life,” however, the band loses that light-footedness. “The Bagman’s Gambit” is a microcosm for the entire Decemberists catalogue—a plodding, dreary verse takes two minutes before breaking into a fever pitch. The surge of emotion that gets carried in the tide with the rebellious “No / You will not catch me” makes the wait through the verse well worth it.
Picaresque, despite its decidedly gray hue, stands out as the group’s best—an accomplishment, to say the least. The Decemberists have no need for reinvention—they’ve found a formula that allows for flexibility and fluidity without losing a consensual sound. They simply get better and better with time; in a time where the floodgates for creativity are wide open, and exposure for bands is as easy as bandwidth, there is still no one that sounds like this crew. Truly a “the whole is greater then the sum of the parts” scenario, this work displays a stunning cohesiveness throughout. More quixotic then quirky, Picaresque finds a band near (but not yet at) the top of their game. Despite the novelic character of their work, The Decemberists aren’t snooty or bookish—they’re entirely charming. And like the fledgling child athlete that narrates “The Sporting Life,” you can’t help but root for them to win.