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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover

PICARESQUE

The Decemberists

 

Prog Folk

3.60 | 57 ratings

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Raff
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars 2005's "Picaresque" sees The Decemberists return to the promising standards of their debut album, "Castaways and Cutouts", after the disappointment of the rather lacklustre "Her Majesty". Between the two, the Portland band had released the EP "The Tain", and set their sights squarely towards a distinctly more progressive approach to composition. After the flat, vaguely soporific soundscapes of "Her Majesty", "Picaresque" impresses for the variety of musical styles displayed in its eleven songs, and for its dramatic, emotional grandeur. Not as well-balanced as its follow-up, "The Crane Wife", it is nevertheless a deeply fascinating, involving album that shows a band constantly trying to push their boundaries, blending various influences and putting their own individual stamp on them. Even in the world of art, inventing something completely from scratch is very rare - more often than not, the mark of a true artist is their ability to re-elaborate and reinvent what they already have at their disposal.

Just like its title suggest, "Picaresque" is vast and theatrical, a collection of vignettes - some of them connected to songs featured on the band's previous albums - depicting the everyday struggles of their characters against the hardships of life. Picaresque novels officially originated in 17th century Spain, as a reaction to the idealised world of chivalry romances (though they hark back to a much older tradition), with low-class heroes or heroines living by their wits in a hostile social environment. However, unlike what generally happens in the real picaresque novels, Colin Meloy's stories rarely have a happy ending, and his characters remind me rather of 19th century Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga's 'defeated'. Their world is made of loneliness, frustration, injustice, violence, and thwarted love; however, in spite of that, The Decemberists' songs hardly ever come across as depressing. Meloy's splendidly written lyrics depict life, warts and all, but rarely if ever wallow in misery the way other bands seem to do. What helps Meloy to avoid sterile navel-gazing is his ability to conjure up rich, lush imagery (like for instance on album opener "The Infanta"), as well as to inject healthy doses of humour in almost every situation.

Musically, "Picaresque" offers a bit of everything: muted, heartbreaking ballads such as "Eli the Barrowboy" or "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" (with Meloy's distinctive voice at its most plaintive), the deceptively light-hearted, poppy ditty "The Sporting Life", the upbeat political manifesto "16 Military Wives", with a horn section to make a traditional brass band green with envy, the involved spy story of "The Bagman's Gambit". The already-mentioned "The Infanta" offers stunning images of fabulous, exotic wealth dressed up in scintillating, infectious musical clothing; while "We Both Go Down Together" (the prequel to "Leslie Anne Levine" featured on "Castaways and Cutouts") sees Meloy in his best Michael Stipe impersonation - the song sounds indeed like an outtake from REM's "Out of Time", though it is none the worse because of that.

The real star of the album, though, appears almost at the very end. The 8-minute-plus epic "The Mariner's Revenge Song" could have come straight from the pens of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht: listen to it back to back with the equally nautically-themed "Pirate Jenny" (also known as "The Black Freighter") from "The Threepenny Opera", and you will see what I mean. Like the German song, it is a tale of revenge (though in this case not imaginary) enacted in the most bizarre of ways - when both the narrator and his nemesis find themselves trapped in the belly of a giant whale - a cautionary tale about evil being eventually punished, one way or the other. Meloy's vocals are supplemented by the reedy but effective tones of guest vocalist Petra Hayden (in the role of the narrator's dead mother), and the pervasive presence of the accordion reinforces the song's early 20th century feel. As a sharp contrast to this dramatic tour-de-force, the album ends with the very understated "Of Angels and Angles", sung by Meloy over a sparse background of piano and acoustic guitar, and ending almost abruptly, in a rather anticlimactic way.

Now to the burning question. Is it prog? Aren't The Decemberists associated with the 'indie/alternative' scene, rather than with the sprawling epics we all know and love? Aren't many of the songs on "Picaresque" too simplistic to be labelled as progressive? Well, things are much more complicated than that. There is something like a 'progressive approach' which, in my humble opinion, transcends the mere nature of the music, and The Decemberists fit this definition to a T.. I see prog rock as much more than 20-minute so-called epics in odd time signatures, with plenty of technical wizardry. The whole concept behind "Picaresque" is what I would personally call progressive, and has to do with the whole package - lyrics, artwork, instrumentation. Obviously, we all know by now that they have been officially invested as a prog band after their latest release, "The Hazards of Love", but I doubt that this recognition applies retroactively for the purists.

As for the rating, I would set this album a notch below its follow-up, "The Crane Wife", which is definitely a more mature effort. However, "Picaresque" will definitely appeal to many a prog fan, even if it does not fit conventional views of prog. A well-crafted, multilayered offering with a profound emotional appeal, it deserves four solid stars, and many unbiased listens. Highly recommended.

Raff | 4/5 |

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