The Decemberists – Picaresque

The DecemberistsPicaresque (Kill Rock Stars)

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.

You can download the video for “16 Military Wives” via BitTorrent. Read an article in Wired about how this came to be.

14 thoughts on “The Decemberists – Picaresque”

  1. this is a terrible review by a fanboy. to whom are you referring when you describe “drawing unfair comparisons to a band far inferior?” is this, perhaps, neutral milk hotel? because if so, i’m sorry to say mr. meloy does not compare to jeff mangum in the slightest. NMH traffics more heart and emotion in one chaotic mess of a song than the decemberists–spry little bastards who resort to acting erudite in a millieu full of bands grappling to see who could appear the most literate–could in an entire album. a terrible excuse for an objective review.

  2. God, Tom, how dare you review a record you liked! Talk about a conflict of interest. I’d better see only negative reviews from you from now on.

  3. This is a good review, and I’m looking forward to this record. But, yeah, if it is in fact Neutral Milk Hotel you refer to as “far inferior” to the Decemberists…them’s fightin’ words!

  4. not an NMH fanboy, but a music lover who can recognize imitation and calls it like i sees it. i just don’t like how the reviewer uselessly uses glorifying adjectives to describe the banalities of a record. “blissful track,” “remarkable distance, “considerable songwriting.” and that’s just the first paragraph. stop the shameless excuse for journalism and be more objective there, chief.

  5. not an NMH fanboy, just a music obsessed junky who wants nothing more than to see idiots removed from the role of music journalist. how many useless glorifying adjectives can one person fit into an ass-kissing review? “blissful track,” “remarkable distance,” “beloved meloy,” all in the first paragraph. please stop writing, you’re taking all the objectivity out of reporting and substituting it with useless information no one cares about but yourself.

  6. Objectivity is for reporters, and frankly, it’s boring. That’s not what this site is about.

    You want objectivity? Go read the music reviews in the Economist. Here, you’re going to find strong opinions by critical music fans.

  7. Its neither here nor there. IF you want to write your own review, get your own site and write up your own opinion, as in the end, its all this is. No need to get so uptight, in the end its only words, and words you can take or leave. Comparisons have been made to NMH right from the start and they are rather unfair, NMH is more of a glorious swirling mass of music that leads from one into the other with plenty of variation in tempo. I find the Decemberists occasionally a bit slow and melancholy and I miss some of the speed and joy such as can be found in July July, but they are far more literate and communicate their stories a bit better, whilst NMH is all about the cacophony. Don’t worry about it though Dingus. You take this or leave it. But remember that there are far worse things going on in the music scene and the world at the moment. Fred Durst for example.

  8. OK, I got a copy of this record and I enjoy it as much as any of their other stuff. I have always loved their sound, the arrangements are stellar and I think Meloy’s singing has a great confidence to it now.

    But let’s get something straight: comparisons to NMH are fair, because despite the review fashion now that says “those comparisons were erroneous” anyone with ears can still hear the superficial similarities. And just to reiterate: NMH is miles and miles above the Decemberists in every

    aspect except barminess, ‘semen-stained mountaintops’ notwithstanding!

    What sticks in my craw regarding this and all Dec. releases: I guess you like this aspect or don’t, but this record is NOT “the Decemberists have given up their Dickensian fantasies and joined the real world,” OK? I don’t know why reviewers are saying this. They’re still totally working that pseudo-historical bullshit, and sometimes that bullshit washes and sometimes it doesn’t. Why? Exhibit a: Nobody but NOBODY has ever been a “barrow boy” who sells “coal” AND “marigolds.” That would be a poor business. The thing is, it’s stuff like that that just points out the precious English-major, writing-workshop artifice of their lyrical content, which is the biggest reason they’ll never have close to the emotional impact of say, oh I don’t know–Neutral Milk Hotel?

    And that fucking song about how he’s no good at sports–oh, REALLY? Gee, could never have guessed that! Gimmeabreak. SKIP. By the way, Iggy Pop wants those drums back. Oh, and REM wants ‘Losing My Religion’ back, too (track 2). A-a-and Morrissey wants his…well, who can divine such mercurial fancies?

    That’s just so we’re straight. I really still do like this album and this group a LOT in spite of itself and I appreciate how cheeky and clever Meloy’s lyrics are. He’s no slouch, let me tell ya! Despite my reservations about their shtick I still really like this band a lot.

  9. Alright – I am NOT a NMH fan… and think they’re boring as hell (due to their cacophony… I think noise is a poor excuse for music… musical noise is BRILLIANT… NMH are, IMHO, not).

    That said, I’m a recent Decemberists convert (and FANATIC) who LOVES the wordplay and precious lyrics. I think the 8+ minutes of seafaring revenge are some of the best music I’ve heard in YEARS.

    I think a lot of the NMH comparisons come from the vocal similarities and the story aspect – but NMH were certainly not the first to use these devices, and they won’t be the last – it’s just an unfortunate set of coincidences that make for the easy comparisons. IMHO anyways.

    As for the “biased” review – actually, I think it was pretty spot on. If you don’t like the band, it wouldn’t matter if the review said “blissful track” or “bitchin’ opening song” – you’d disagree since the description is less a problem than the intent.

  10. I don’t think there has ever been a song better than The Engine Driver, for its combination of beauty and sadness. This is from a fan of more gritty bands like the Astronauts.

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