The Decemberists – Picaresque

The Decemberists – Picaresque [Kill Rock Stars]
5 Stars

The Decemberists live in a world of fake moustaches, newspaper men with press cards in their hatbands, and bootblacks.  Their albums have always been firmly rooted in the past, both musically and lyrically.  Guitars have competed for attention with accordions, horns of bizarre shapes and sizes, and pedal steel guitars.  Not quite neo-folk, not quite country, not quite punk rawk, not quite indie; they’ve invented their own genres and audiences.  Their latest release for Kill Rock Stars, Picaresque, manages to straddle the line between traditional Decemberists work (which may be a bit redundant) and more popular stylings.  While they will never be as big as, say, Modest Mouse, the Decemberists are setting themselves up to become one of the most important indie groups since Neutral Milk Hotel.

While every Decemberists album feels like a series of skits from the world’s greatest middle school musical, Picaresque graduates to masterpiece theatre.  Where many writers would simply dictate the details of their story, Meloy creates delicate, reverent character sketches.  The listener can’t help but feel for the suicidal couple in “We Both Go Down Together” or the lovelorn spy in “The Bagman’s Gambit”.  The male prostitutes in “On the Bus Mall” really are “kings among runaways” in Meloy’s world.   “The Sporting Life” easily laps Belle and Sebastian’s “The Stars of Track and Field” in its fey sports star glory.  Meloy sings for every 98 pound weakling who ever tripped in front of a soccer goal as he sighs “There’s my girlfriend arm in arm/with the captain of the other team.”  The action in the Decemberists’ songs seems to take place at a distance, even when told in first person.

The album’s first half is actually quite standard Decemberists fare:  mostly acoustic ostentations  on vaguely reminiscent characters.  While these songs are good, and in the case of “The Bagman’s Gambit”, great, they do not compare to the five songs which end the album.  “Mariner’s Revenge Song” may very well hold the much-coveted and competed-for title of Most Epic Decemberists Song.  Having nothing to do with Coleridge’s “Rhime of the Ancient Mariner” (which would not be a surprise from every English major’s favorite band), it recounts the story of a mariner who, in the belly of a whale, traps the sea captain who betrayed him several lives before.  The language in the song is brutally visceral, particularly when compared to the rest of the album, but the change of pace works in its favor.

If “Mariner’s Revenge Song” is the most epic Decemberists song, “Engine Driver” is the saddest with its Springsteen-esque characterization of working class romance.  One can’t help but reflect on the deadening blue-collar power of lines like “There are power lines/in our bloodlines”.  The chorus of “Engine Driver” sounds fairly trite (“If you don’t love me/let me go”) on paper, but when Meloy’s whine mixes with  Jenny Conlee’s gorgeous melody in the final movement, the song stops being great and simply transcends any previous knowledge of what a good song is.  And then there’s “Sixteen Military Wives”, Meloy’s first trip down Political Lane.  Where most of the songs sound like relics from seventeenth century pirate ships, “Sixteen Military Wives” is a shift into the decidedly modern 1970s.  Over a blissfully poppy horn arrangement, Meloy compares soldier’s wives to the Motion Picture Academy, voter apathy to voter apathy.  Material that should be a downer, yes, but the Decemberists treat the sarcastic chorus of “America does if America says it’s so!” like a cheer rather than a warning.  The song’s strange juxtaposition of the upbeat and dreary make it the album’s shining moment.

Album after album, song after song, Meloy continues to write contemporary classics.  The Decemberists reach back to make music that is completely innovative in its archival outlook.  Chances are they will never break through (unless the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie sparks renewed interest in sea shanties), but Picaresque indicates that they will continue to release perfect albums until well after the Sixteenth Century folk revival (It’s just around the corner.  You heard it here first.).

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