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The Decemberists - Her Majesty CD (album) cover

HER MAJESTY

The Decemberists

 

Prog Folk

3.18 | 31 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Bang. Her Majesty finds The Decemberists about twenty seven times as sure of themselves as on the previous album. You need only compare the opening number here to the opener of Castaways and Cutouts: Castaways opened with a slow paced folk number, perfectly charming in its own right. However, Her Majesty opens with a blast of sound effects, not music; the band goes on to tackle a full blown sea shanty, except it goes beyond sea shanty, tossing in gruesome, gothic rock effects, going deeper and cleverer than they would have dared a year ago. And that album opener is probably the best tune, “Shanty For The Arethusa.” It’s a terribly depressing, initially shiver sending...well, “Shanty.” It’s about ghosts and the ocean and doomed voyages to Australia and all that. The lyrics are intriguing (who else but Colin Meloy could sing about a “Jewess and Mandarin Chinese boy” and get away with it?), but it’s the downbeat, martial chorus that really sells the song.

Strange then that it’s followed by something so bouncy and upbeat, in fact, one of the few truly upbeat songs on the record. “Billy Liar” is a fantastic, nostalgic, pop folk rocker, with an effortlessly pretty chorus and sufficiently intelligent lyrics to please your friends. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is a dreamy indie folk ballad grounded mainly by the acoustic guitar, but the keyboard effects coupled with the orchestra give it an almost ELP feel at points. Maybe it’s just because the song namedrops my favorite city (and not even in the best light mind you), but I like it.

“The Gymnast, High Above the Ground” is the first epic on the album...and it’s also the first spot that’s not pure brilliance. Still, the build that leads into the song is kinda interesting, and the payoff is adequately stirring, pretty even. Seven minutes might be a tad long, but it uses its length wisely enough. “The Bachelor and the Bride” is a presented like another poppy folk number, but the lyrics recount some kind of terrifying premarital encounter between the titular characters. Well, it’s oddly pleasant music either way (fantastic flutes backed by jazzy drumming, I should say).

“Song for Myla Goldberg” is probably the only spot on the album where I’d call foul. It’s a rousing enough number, and marching band drumming and repeated phrasing certainly gives the song catchiness, but here catchiness is a curse; the band is back in “we don’t care” mode, and the whole thing can come off as irritating when the mood catches me wrong. What a treat then that “The Soldiering Life” comes up next. It’s pretty much an amalgam of what’s right with the album: a downbeat, memorable, well produced song that manages to cause toes to tap, show off an orchestra (the horns), utilize a weird topic (the almost romantic fraternity of World War I soldiers), and throw in just a touch of beauty for good measure (the chorus). In other words, it’s great.

If it’s a touch of beauty you’re after though, “My Red Right Ankle” should do you fine. All acoustic, just guitars and Colin singing, and it might last just a couple seconds too long...but if it catches you on the right leg, it can transform into an emotional powerhouse. God knows how. The definite highlight “The Chimbley Sweep” has since become a stage favorite, and I can understand why. It basically takes the “Legionnaire’s Lament” line from the first album, and makes it thrice as aggressive. If you ever want to hear the Decemberists rock out, as only a band that sings hard rockers (complete with accordions) about the sexual adventures of vengeful Victorian orphans, then this is YOUR song. Seriously. Great Chris Funk solo on this one.

As towering as “Chimbley” was fast, “I Was Meant For Stage” is the second epic of the album. Relying even more on build (starting off with acoustic, adding band members, brining in orchestra, etc.), once again, there is not a lot of material over these seven minutes...but once again, I kind of fail to notice. The tune itself is pure, and the deconstruction (excuse me, demolition) it receives at the finish is a suitable way to end the song I’d say. Certainly gives the self sure theatrical lyrics a final twist of irony. But as suitable as that would have been, the album instead ends with “As I Rise,” which also comes off as suitable. Probably because it’s anticlimactic after “Stage;” certainly it doesn’t hurt that the country- western ditty is pleasant as can be.

So, as you can see, an improvement over the first album. Yeah. I said it. Castaways was a charming, charming record, and I think it’s great...but I cannot argue with the confidence that this album exudes. The Castaways band would never had had the guts to play something like “Shanty” or “Billy Liar;” if they did, it would have sounded clumsy and unsure.

I also enjoy the lyrics more and more. Colin is really starting to become a master wordsmith, being capable of wielding bizarre imagery with the comic, and occasionally scraping at beauty. I mean, I somehow doubt that there can be very many stories about the “boys who’ve loved me,” but being placed in that song (“Red Right Ankle”) honestly does hit me in a personal way somehow.

Finally, the band is coming to realize that there’s more to epics than just taking a couple of ideas and playing them for a while. Okay, okay, so neither “Gymnast” nor “Stage” features a plethora of musical ideas, but each one is using dynamics and effects and, damn it, gimmicks in a creative enough manner to keep me interested.

Factor in the upped production values (I like orchestras) and hugely increased diversity of the album (hey! The Decemberists can play more than overlong indie folk!), and you’ve got a winner. I still shun a couple of moments on the record, particularly in the middle, where the material takes on a “pleasant, but not terribly striking” air, and certainly nothing ever quite lives up to the quality of the first two songs. But still, a very mature record for so young a band. They haven’t quite done their masterpiece, but they’re getting there.

The Whistler | 4/5 |

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