I’ll Be Your Girl: The Decmberists Go Big (Album Review)

Beginning as hurdy-gurdy anachronists, creaking acoustic tellers of gothic tales and hoary tragedies; The Decmberists finally grew into pseudo operatic prog-rock showmen with their 2008 concept album The Hazards of Love. They then decamped for more traditional College Rock and Indie Guitar Pop without fully abandoning their love of ghosts, eerie personification of nature, and pre-20th century martial imagery.

With I’ll Be Your Girl they once again expand their style without abandoning its elements. Much the same way Hazards of Love expanded their storytelling, rescuing what had become a slightly stale formula of jangly dissociated pirate songs, military themes, and ghost stories by letting it breath and find new facets in the service of a single album-long narrative. This new record sets Colin Meloy and company in bright power pop lights, revealing new energy and attitudes.

The opening track, Once in My Life, sets the tone with reverberating synths and ringing guitars that bring to mind hi-career Manic Street Preachers. It’s a spacious stadium rock howl that goes off like swiveling spotlights and suggests these once wilting bibliophiles are ready to step on stage and embrace the inner drama geek (to extend the high school clique metaphor).

It’s a sound that extends throughout the album and suggests The Decemberists have perhaps been listening to what their fellow early 2000s indie rock alum New Pornographers were up to on their recent albums. Most songs are buoyed and enlarged by the immense sounds. Though they do creep into parody and distraction on a song like Cutting Stone. With lyrics about a “…wayward child/Lost, anon,” it resembles an out take from 2004’s Picaresque, but remixed to fit this new sonic zeitgeist. It strains uncomfortably against machine drums and synth pulses.

The two song narrative of Rusalka/Wild Rushes recalls the ambitions of Hazards of Love and it will take a few more listens to decide whether it works in context of this new sonic identity or just distracts with memories of more fully realized versions of this earlier style. It might take a listener new to the band to say whether it works here. The atmospheric stadium-rock flourishes are at least less distracting than on Cutting Stone.

Mostly though this album delivers immense pleasure in its bold and various reimagining of what The Decemberists can sound like. Sucker’s Prayer, with its hammond organ, choral backing, and bluesy lope evokes 70s Nashville. It’s just one slide guitar and twangy cadence away from the Opry stage. Here’s hoping Dolly Parton is winding up to do a cover of it soon.

We All Die Young is pure un-disguised early 70s glam. T-Rex fans take notice and bring your stove pipe hats.

Then there is the issue of the song I am claiming now as my Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter 2018 anthem. Everything is Awful is the pop sing along for our time. It deserves to be a hit. I want it to play everywhere. I’ve listened to it so much I almost failed to review the rest of the album. It’s big, hooky, power pop, cheery in posture but utterly defeated in subject, playful and angry, energetic and defeated, it’s the sound of pop culture throwing up its hands and walking away, as we’ve all often considered doing recently. A borderless national anthem for people who’ve been paying attention.

The Decmberists have evolved on this album into a great pop rock band without surrendering their depth or obsessions. And for a band who’ve sometimes gotten stuck in stylistic holding patterns it’s an excitingly various and satisfying record.

Amateur Everything: slow learner, low earner, long thinker, kind of addicted to going unnoticed.

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