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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover

PICARESQUE

The Decemberists

 

Prog Folk

3.60 | 57 ratings

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Epignosis
Special Collaborator
Eclectic Prog Team
4 stars A picaresque novel, which comes from the Spanish word "picaro," meaning "rogue, describes the efforts of a low-class antihero- a rascal- who lives by his wits in a crooked society. Therefore, the title of this album fits flawlessly, since each song in some manner is a "picturesque" vignette of an impoverished character and the surrounding circumstances. As usual, the album is chock full of the pedantic vocabulary Colin Melody possesses. At some points, the band maintains the listlessness of their sophomore album, but injects much needed variety, instrumental fervor, and "did-they-really-just-go-there?" lyrics, ingredients that show both the musical and lyrical maturity and direction the band was adopting. In many ways, this album is like a sister to the debut, Castaways and Cutouts, which evokes similar themes and rather uncomplicated music. For those romantic hearts who see the charm amidst the squalor, this is as good as it gets.

"The Infanta" Fitting in with The Decemberist's historical and yet pompous themes, this song is an upbeat depiction of the coronation of the Spanish queen in 1824. The song contains some wonderful wordplay, most notably, "baroness's barrenness." Matters slow down for the Spanish-like bridge, which feature a lovely feminine harmony.

"We Both Go Down Together" Acoustic guitar and violin are the main instruments here. For so many reasons, this sounds incredibly like R.E.M., specifically "Losing My Religion." Essentially, the song is about a wealthy man who rapes or basically rapes a destitute girl and they cast themselves off a cliff, only that, according to Meloy in a live performance of "Leslie Anne Levine," the woman steps back at the last minute, carries the child to term but dies doing so, and shortly thereafter the infant perishes also- whatever the case, this is pretty outlandish and grisly stuff. Someone once told me she and her husband used this as their wedding song, and, simultaneously balking and chuckling, I asked her, "Do you even know what the lyrics are saying?" Without batting an eye, she said, "Oh yes."

"Eli, The Barrow Boy" The stark acoustic guitar and haunting vocals are at once poignant and hard to forget. The sad lyrics give me both chills and pause, as I reflect on the ultimate fate of us all, and that no amount of love or wealth will stay the hand of death. The barrow boy and his love are buried in two different places (his being buried in a churchyard suggests his poverty, or perhaps that he was even an orphan). Furthermore, it's possible he killed himself, given that his only purpose for toiling, it seems, was to shower his true love with something extravagant. Whatever the case, it matters not. They are both dead, and yet his ghost at night still haunts the street, pushing his burden to somehow do in death what he could not do in life.

"The Sporting Life" Meloy doesn't keep the listeners depressed for long, with this jaunty, almost oldies-like number, but the lyrical theme stays well in bounds of heartbreaking. While under an awful lot of pressure from his coach, his father, his teammates, and pretty much everyone he knows, the young man chokes during a soccer match and literally falls flat on the ground. As he looks up, he sees the utter disappointment of his old man, the coach who should've known better than to put him in, and his girlfriend who is, apparently, no longer his girlfriend since she has linked her arm with that of the opposing team's captain. Musically, this is one of my favorite tracks, mainly because of that thick, rich organ that bursts in during what amounts to a chorus as well as that subtle banjo that clucks along. This is a song about failure and humiliation- something I think most folks can relate to at some point in their lives.

"The Bagman's Gambit" This primarily acoustic guitar song is a story of a relationship between an American informant and his Russian spy of a lover. He sees her picture on the news, after she had just shot a policeman. He remembers how, for "a tryst on the greenery," he handed over classified materials. Then one night, the protagonist hears his lover is detained in Russia because her country no longer trusts her, so he bribes a bureaucrat to relocate her to safety. (that's what a bagman does, anyway- delivers ransom money to the boss). There's a gorgeous string interlude that carries alongside some manner of distant buzzing. The acoustic guitar comes in and, in a mighty and long crescendo with Meloy's powerful voice crying forth (and some feminine voice I think, that says something I can't make out but sounds like it could be in Russian). The end of the piece is similar to the beginning, but is somber and saddening: The American must resign himself to merely taking comfort that his lover is alive, but must live knowing they cannot be together. There are variations to this interpretation (aren't there always with The Decemberists?), but that's the gist. When thinking of my own love, that last line always gets me: "With the wave of an arm you were there and gone." While not about death, this song is a poignant reminder than a permanent separation can happen at any moment.

"From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)" Here is yet another melancholic song, which also to my ears sounds a lot like a slow oldies tune, particularly during the chorus. Also acoustic guitar based, this piece has a saddening melody and equally sorrowful lyrics about someone waiting for decades to hear back from a lover who is lost as sea. An uncaring, rumbling drum thunders in the distance.

"16 Military Wives" While I certainly like this song, I think it's one of the weakest ones The Decemberists ever recorded. To me, it sounds like a giddy pop rock song. As for the interpretation of the lyrics, I'll just go on record as to say I don't think this is specifically an anti-war song per se. According to Meloy in a CMJ article dated March 27, 2005: "That song came out of that first verse and it was really just an equation of numbers of war widows receiving news that their husbands had died. It was a way of pointing out how the government and the media feed us numbers and that's how we can make sense of people dying. Everything gets boiled down into numbers, so it made sense from there to create something kind of topical. As soon as I wrote it, I went, "Oh my God! Did I just write a topical protest song?" Essentially this song lambastes both ends of the political spectrum, as well as the complacent people at home who gobble up everything the media throws on their plates. The music video sheds more light on the meaning of the song, as it seems to suggest that as the United States of America increasingly tries to impose its way of living (government, culture, etc.) on other countries, one day former allies will turn.

"The Engine Driver" Twelve-string guitar begins this absolutely enthralling song. The delicate harmonies are beautiful, and the vocal melody itself is unforgettable. It seems each verse represents a different person who has a something they do that is just a fundamental part of who they are, and if they can't be accepted for that, then there is no way they can loved. In a deeper respect, since more emphasis is given to the "writer of fictions," the song is about Meloy himself, who, through creating these tales, exists as all these various people, in many times, places, and contexts.

"On The Bus Mall" Continuing with the twelve-string acoustic guitar, lovely clean guitar showers over it in the introduction of this narrative song. Essentially, this one is about a pair of street urchins who think of themselves as lords nonetheless ("kings among runaways"), but who survive by prostituting themselves to old men, and coping with it ("In bathrooms and barrooms, on dumpsters and heirlooms, we bit our tongues and sucked our lips into our lungs") because that is how they get by. And such is their companionship, they are able to get each other through it ("We laughed off the quick tricks, the old men with limp dicks"). The lyrics describe the squalor and sordidness of their lifestyle perfectly, but the major chords give it the happiness that carries the young fellows through.

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" Another sordid yarn, this one involves two men trapped in the belly of a whale. The narrator recounts to his "whale-mate" exactly how they know each other. It turns out the protagonist is the son of a woman who married this bastard, a man who ran about with the whores and spent all their money on games and drink, only to leave the family with his debts. The magistrate seizes the woman's home, and soon the narrator's mother contracts tuberculosis and dies. But with her dying words, she tells her son to find this rake and visit revenge upon him. After fifteen years, the young man finds a sea captain who fits the description of the villain, so he boards a boat to fulfill his mother's dying wishes. Just then, a leviathan devours them, killing the rest of the crews, but now here they are, two men brought together by coincidence ("divine intelligence," the narrator says). And in the guts of the sea creature, the young man exacts his vengeance. The music is a bit different from what else is on the album, both in instrumentation and in sound. The band reportedly recorded this together in one take, gathered around a single microphone with their instruments and moving back and forth for volume control. The music is completely dark cabaret, with accordion, mandolin and upright bass. There is a refrain in the form of the mother (a sickly wispy female voice) that describes what she wants done in explicit detail; when presumably her son has finished telling his tale and is ready to kill the debonair and cruel man, there is no vocal on the refrain, just an increasingly faster instrumental version that crashes through to the song's violent conclusion.

"Of Angels And Angles" Meloy seems rather obsessed with drowning, both literally and metaphorically ("The Island" and "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)" come to mind). Interpretations, as is usually the case, vary, but mine this is thus: The title is clearly a reference to Pope Gregory I, who, upon seeing some blonde-haired, blue-eyed youngsters in a Roman slave market, inquired of their background. He was told they were Angles, but he replied, "Non Angli, sed Angeli," which is to say, "Not Angles, but angels." Life is, from one gloomy perspective, gradual death, or for Meloy's purpose here, drowning. We breathe and breathe until one day we stop. He contrasts his pessimistic and grandiose notion with the mundane aspects of life, and perhaps the drowning isn't nearly as bad if we have someone to go a-drowning with, someone we find beautiful despite all circumstances. At least I think that's what he's saying.

Epignosis | 4/5 |

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