The Decemberists

Picaresque

(Kill Rock Stars; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 23 March 2005

The Decemberists have always felt like a band destined for greatness of some kind. As early as the 5 Songs EP, in hindsight a fairly innocuous collection of pleasant folk rock ditties, the band hinted at a pupating genius that wouldn’t fully reveal itself until its two subsequent full lengths, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty, The Decemberists. Those albums, while by no means great themselves, each hosted a generous scattering of indelible moments (like “The Gymnast High Above the Ground,” “July, July!” “Billy Liar,” "Odalisque," and especially “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade”) that suggested an enormous potential the band always seemed on the cusp of realizing.

While it’s always nice to hear a band consciously expand its sound--as the Decemberists have done fluidly with each album and EP--it’s especially refreshing to hear one do so with this much elegance and restraint. Picaresque is a good deal less grandiose than its pre-release buzz (and last year’s brilliant The Tain EP) would lead you to expect, sounding almost sonically identical to its predecessors on first listen.

Certainly, many of the songs do sound noticeably larger than any of the band’s previous work; with its galloping rhythm and Meloy’s giddily melodramatic vocal, “The Infanta” could almost pass as arena rock, if only it didn’t feature words like “palanquin,” “rhapsodical,” “chaparral,” or, uh, “infanta.” But aside from what can only be described as a (surprisingly excellent) noise breakdown in “The Bagman’s Gambit” and a few scattered instrumental passages elsewhere, the album retains the band’s confident and stubborn emphasis on songwriting over all else, which is a good thing, because Picaresque finds Colin Meloy coming into his own as one of the best lyricists of his time.

The stories here are as colourful and three-dimensional as Meloy has written, and they resonate emotionally in a way they have not before: in “Eli, The Barrow Boy,” the ghost of a “coal and marigolds” vendor yearns for lost love as he haunts a churchyard; in “The Bagman’s Gambit,” a treasonous Cold War-era government agent reminisces about an affair with a Communist spy; in the wacky, nine-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a young man follows his former step-father into the belly of a whale to avenge his mother’s death. While the themes and subject matter of these songs are certainly recognizable, Meloy infuses them with a new kind of urgency, making them far more visceral and affecting than any of his previous work.

Even more captivating is when Meloy’ songs side step their familiar academia and whimsicality, as they do here for perhaps the first time since 5 Songs. “16 Military Wives” takes the piss out of uncivilized discourse and Hollywood political advocacy like a nerdy cousin of Team America: World Police, with Meloy sounding delightfully coy and witty over one of his most infectious melodies. Most startling is the brief, gorgeous closer “Of Angels and Angles,” where, over a spare acoustic guitar, Meloy sings what can only be described as--and leave it to the Decemberists to make this a surprise--a love song. It just comes out of nowhere; it’s as heartfelt and direct as he has ever been, and coming from a guy who’s always kept a considerable detachment from his stories and characters, it makes you practically choke on your own heart.

The band itself must be commended as well, developing the drama inherent in Meloy’s songs without overwhelming them. Along with producer Chris Walla and a hired horn section, they sound much bigger and more proficient than before, but never intrusively so; in “The Sporting Life” they grind out a quiet “Lust for Life”-ish beat over the verses before seamlessly exploding into brief shots of ethereality for the chorus. They handle the dynamic shifts in songs like “Mariner’s Revenge” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” sharply, sounding nothing like the cutesy acoustic combo heard on 5 Songs. Meloy’s ambitions must be difficult to keep up with, but they’ve been consistently up to the task, making his songs even more animated and playful, and grounding his more airy-fairy lyrical tangents.

While Picaresque is a significant step forward, it’s also a logical one. The band’s sonic palette has expanded gradually from album to album, and appears to have come full circle here. What’s remarkable is how much like themselves the band has sounded through it all -- the influences of Morrissey, Mangum and Murdoch are as evident here as they were from the outset; the band simply wears them more confidently now, and has married them with enough poise that the similarities are much easier to forget. It’s much harder to guess where they’ll go from here; what’s clear, though, is that with Picaresque, the Decemberists have made their first tangible step towards greatness, as the band--Meloy, especially--seems fully aware of its own potential and confident enough to try to reach it. And hearing that confidence so richly and abundantly demonstrated on Picaresque, one can’t help but be excited for what may come next.