The Decemberists

The Decemberists

The Decemberists


Kill Rock Stars

Before I had the chance to listen to The Decemberists’ latest album, I read quite a few reviews. Though overwhelmingly positive, a number of my reviewer colleagues threw the word “pretentious” in songwriter Colin Meloy’s direction because of his adoption of a faux British accent, his stage-y song themes, occasional archaic lyrics and general obsession with the 19th century. The laziness and absurdity behind such an accusation is overwhelming. Meloy pulls from a theatricality that’s existed for decades in rock music. On its most even terms, think Queen circa “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Beyond that, consider the stage make-up and personas of KISS or the B-movie, sci-fi schlock of Gwar. No one in their right mind would tag them with pretentiousness. The Decemberists pull straight from theater, with over-the-top characters, situations and expansive operatic storytelling. Meloy, a master of pulp literature, spins tales of caravans in colonial India, vengeful mariners, bowery life and Cold War espionage. He’s able to condense a dime store novel into a six minute song.

Meloy has long been an expert at crafting lush and sprawling pop songs, but this time his work twists, splinters and reforms through many disparate musical movements. Tracks like “Infanta,” with its canopy of Eastern melodies and thick undergrowth of percussion, truly transcend conventional pop music, their largesse owing more to Gilbert & Sullivan than Lennon/McCartney. The band recognizes that a whole album of songs of this magnitude could be numbing. The moments when they pull back hold an even deeper beauty. “We Both Go Down Together,” “Eli, The Barrow Boy” and “Of Angels and Angles” all draw from deeper wells of folk music and Americana, and they are some of the most simplistic, sweet and tragic songs I’ve heard this year.

If there’s one complaint to be made about Picaresque, it’s that Meloy continues a near monopolization of the vocals. With such rogue gallery characters and sounds inhabiting the album, it would be nice to hear them voiced by other band members instead of existing as different facets of Meloy’s stage personality. Looking beyond this comparatively minor shortcoming, the album is The Decemberists’ defining musical statement, and it’s going to be hard for their contemporaries to come up with something nearly as erudite, entertaining and emotionally engaging to top it when it comes to the Best Of list for 2005.

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