Colin Meloy, with his lovely languid voice, his daunting vocabulary and his baffling knowledge of 19th-century European history, accounts for a considerable amount of the Decemberists’ allure. The Portland ensemble’s new album Her Majesty the Decemberists, a fitting successor to 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, is rife with the front man’s less-than-rock-and-roll pet themes of soldiers, sailors and downtrodden proles. Reappearing too, on tracks like “Shanty for the Arethusa” and “Chimbley Sweep” (respectively, the band’s second pirate- and chimney sweep-themed songs on record) is the jaunty cadence that made the best Castaways tracks so compelling.
On the songs that work best, the Decemberists bring all of their unusual instrumentation – Wurlitzers and vibraphones, pedal steels and glockenspiels – to bear, and craft vibrant melodies and sailing crescendos. Too often, however, the band seems to use Meloy’s always-excellent vocals as an excuse to avoid fleshing out the songs, leaving promising tunes such as “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” feeling… lite. Her Majesty is a literate and engaging work, though not all of its elements carry Meloy’s inventiveness and tenacity.