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The Decemberists - Picaresque CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

3.61 | 76 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
4 stars Do you know what I love about Colin Meloy? Do you know what I simply adore about The Decemberists? It’s how stupid they honestly are. In an effort to gain critical attention, because the band WANTS to sell out, the Decemberists try and take the indie art folk route. When that doesn’t quite work, they start writing more complex songs, bringing in orchestras and the like. Does that work? Nope. So, for Picaresque, the band brings in MORE orchestras, writes MORE complex, even WEIRDER material. Is that what the people want? I doubt it. But do I care? No way, bring it on.

You want studio sure, right? How about the opener on this one, “The Infanta.” Not as charming as “Shanty for the Arethusa” perhaps, but it cracks down with all the pounding force of a charging Indian elephant, busting in huge, glorious orchestral parts, and a deep, rumbling bassline hidden Colin welcoming the new savior of the subcontinent. Not a bad way to kick things off, eh?

Perhaps the best song on the album though is “We Both Go Down Together,” a sweeping orchestral, almost miniature folk epic, very much in the vein of “Odalisque” in theme and scope. The beauty is a little forced, but still, it’s so nicely put together...I know a ton of bands that would kill to sound this good. Talk about payoff though, after the swoop of “Together,” we’re greeted with the simple, restrained, quietly gorgeous “Eli, the Barrel Boy.” It’s a simple folk tune, but there’s nothing simple about the emotion that runs through it.

“The Sporting Life” is our standard overly cheesey pop song. Once again, the band’s natural ability to compose catchy pop songs is their bane, when “Sporting Life” ends up being a fairly moronic, generic ditty; somehow, I prefer Colin when he’s singing about Victorian rape victims fighting Janissaries on pirate ships than when he’s singing about high school. “The Bagman’s Gambit” is an epic in true Her Majesty style, but I’m not convinced. It’s good when the orchestra picks up, but the acoustic vocal melody is far too lazy for the band at this point.

Oceanic folk ballad “For My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” is also something that COULD have been pretty at some point, but is far too draggy. C’mon guys, we were supposed to be beyond this by now! Oh well. “16 Military Wives” should drag us out of that dragginess. And so it does. Nothing more than a pop song, glorified with an orchestra (and personally, I don’t dig politics in my songs), but the thing is so darn catchy, and this time without being generic. Damn it, it’s anthemic, complete with a fist pumping refrain and plenty of intelligent twists. It’s easy to see why this one was a pocket hit (and made into an hilarious music video).

But it’s the quiet, unassuming folk ballad “The Engine Driver” that should have been big. I swear; maybe THIS is the best song on the album. When I’m in the mood, it’s one of the most devastating songs in my entire catalogue. I don’t even know why. The simple, sad repeat of “If you don’t love me, let me go” is great, and there’s the “I am a writer” part that gets me every time, but the whole song is gorgeous in its own right. It also slides flawlessly into “On the Bus Mall,” which isn’t nearly as good. Another folky ballad, only this time the lyrics are more interesting than the melody.

Still, for those looking to fuse the macabre, theatrical and humorous sides of the Decemberists, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” should just about do the trick. It’s another epic, this time built around a catchy, stomping nautical verse, that changes just enough to never bore you. The story is hilarious— just trust me when I say it involves everything Decemberisty from widows to whales. Naturally though, we can’t end with the gut busting epic, so the final song is “Of Angels and Angles,” a completely stripped bared ballad. Just Colin and his guitar; no accordions or organs or anything tossed in, honest. All in all, it lets us end on a pretty note, which is fine by me.

All in all, this is the album that pretty much sums up the Decemberists for people. It is certainly one of the most Decemberist-centric albums ever created, the Decemberist album for Decemberist fans, if you will. Everything’s in place, from your bizarre history lesson of an opener, right down to your epic at the end ( technically ends with “Angels and Angles,” but I think we all know that that’s just an afterthought. The REAL end of the story is that “Mariner” thing).

I personally miss some of the even flow and downbeat mood that Her Majesty gave us, but certainly Picaresque has the stronger individual material. Still, we the band hadn’t just come off of Her Majesty, it had come off of The Tain. So where’s my TAIN quality work? Well, it’s not on this album. In fact, Picaresque kind of takes the Tain philosophy of “let’s just have the band playing” and morphs it into a massive orchestral duel that spans the entire record. If Her Majesty was Colin exorcising his Los Angeles ghosts present since “California One” off the first album, then Picaresque is Colin exorcising his “I NEED to have an orchestra playing in every song” demons. From this point onward, the band is capable of putting faith in themselves to sound symphonic, and that’s a good thing.

Not that it’s not fun along the way. Like I said, I might prefer Her Majesty for conceptual reasons, but Picaresque keeps taking the Decemberists in new directions, and with better material. In fact, even though the material was to keep getting better and better, the band would actually have to backtrack with their next album. It turns out that, once you’ve gone as far as Picaresque, and you still DO want to sell records, and it looks like there’s a chance you might get radio play...well, you try something a little subtler next time. But throw subtlety to the wind for just a moment, crawl back into that overblown frame of mind, and give Picaresque a shot. Who knows? Might be fun.

The Whistler | 4/5 |


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