The Decemberists - I'll Be Your Girl
I'll Be Your Girl
When the warnings of a bomb over Portland let off the ring of a million smartphones through the WEA, when many enter the highways to escape, and a few decide to spend their last moments with family at home; who will retreat to the Aladdin Theater to hear The Decemberists live in concert and what will the band play? To such an apocalyptic hypothetical we now have the answer: disquieting and consoling, jubilant and morose, the band’s new album I’ll Be Your Girl is the soundtrack to political anxiety; a musical ambition to refine and modernize frontman Colin Meloy’s lyric-heavy folk styling that tends to succeed if not always on execution, then certainly intention.
Almost a modern Bible to thousands of die-hard fans, Meloy’s verses have become sacrosanct, his stories of maritime voyagers and murders book and psalm. Like his peer in the 21st century concept club, Casey Crescenzo of The Dear Hunter, and spiritual older brother John Darnielle, Colin and his band have spent almost 20 years delighting the imagination with records that often seemed the work of a novelist more than a singer-songwriter (he has in fact, been a published author since 2004).
While his talent for creating worlds and those that dwell in them has led to that elusive music industry success, Meloy reflected in a recent interview that when it comes to writing, sometimes a bit of editing is necessary. That revelation is reflected in all aspects of I’ll Be Your Girl, but nowhere more aggressively than the first track, “Once In My Life”, which stands firmly on only two sentences, repeated ad nauseam over a groove pulled straight from a 1960’s psychedelic pop love-in. Fans of his typical lyrical expression are bound to be turned off, although the song is pleasant enough and the words, even in their constricted state, are reassuring.
“Cutting Stone” is a moment where the reductions in exposition lead to a fantastic outcome. The listener is teleported to a war-torn country, where a soul strung acoustic guitar gives way to programmed drums, a swampy synth bass, and electronic strings, all the while Colin sings about the regrets that follow a soldier who solves problems with a weapon, ending life and calling it mercy. The subdued production (this and every track by new collaborator John Congleton) plays perfectly to the somber tale its narrator tells.
With its lyrics and accompanying music video by Morgan Gruer, “Severed” sees The Decemberists address American politics head-on, going as far as quoting 45th President and populist billionaire playboy Donald Trump from his appearance at the RNC in 2016. A synthpop rave-up that culminates in pounding drums and distorted guitar that cuts the listener like a chainsaw, “Severed” is a contentious and topical song that successfully tackles fear and the tactics of division that the power hungry use to take control.
While you’re in our imaginary Portland pre-destruction, “Starwatcher” serves as your first indication of imminent doom. The unrelenting march of a military beat, loud strumming of a civil war era dreadnaught, and a vocal hook that recalls tribal battle soldiers on as we hear the “whispering of war”. As a pair, “Tripping Along” is a sweet, sometimes a bit too saccharine song that seems to flip these warnings of war to the alarm of falling in love. Almost entirely guitar and vocals, this one allows Meloy to really seduce, and he doesn’t disappoint.
The macabre arrives in the haunting pop of “Your Ghost”. A combination of Rubber Soul-era Beatles and classical revival, this song drives without ever letting up, introducing an effected guitar, harpsichord melody, and Jenny Conlee doing her best evocation of an earthbound spirit, dancing through the walls of a 19th-century Victorian style mansion. Thick with elements and well produced, this serves as another example of the band working within their self-imposed constraints to great results.
“Everything Is Awful” is only half accurate. The verses are heart wrenching 50’s prom -rock that soothes with a sound reminiscent of electric Dylan and again, the Beatles, especially in the “la la la” breakdown that ends the song. However, it’s hard to overlook the chorus, which annoyingly worms its way past your eardrum to infect any positive memory this song could’ve created. While intentionally crafting an upbeat melody with pessimism to the core, this one falls flat and ultimately remains a weak point on the album.
From the wreckage of “Everything’s” sunken “Yellow Submarine”, “Sucker’s Prayer” emerges as the surviving crew, now castaways on a vast and un-answering sea. Country-tinged, and in the style of solo John Lennon, Meloy deciphers hopelessness and life’s overwhelming burden over a dirty electric and swelling organ, soulful drums, and rockabilly piano. The hook offers an emotional standout, “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how”, and you can easily imagine Meloy surrounded by a choir before the congregants of some small town church. Although a bit short in length, expect this track to be fleshed out live with multiple solos; this is a moment that recalls 2011’s The King Is Dead.
The last entry on the album is positively and unapologetically Beatles-esque. “We All Die Young” is another exercise in doom speak behind a happy tune, though unlike “Everything” Meloy’s vocal is expressive and sardonic. The children’s sing-along is especially dark and poignant in the immediate wake of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting, and although one can’t help but hope this song loses that bloody context with time, it’s harder still to pretend it will. Musically and thematically I’m reminded of Father John Misty, Young Veins, and early Brit-pop.
A two in one track, “Rusalka, Rusalka/ Wild Rushes” follows “Cutting Stone” in being a sound completely within the band’s ballpark. This time, however, they avoid the stripped down and lyric light early track for something more grand and conceptual. Telling the story of a man pulled to his death by the Russian equivalent of sirens, “Rusalka" is a warm, drawn-out musical ambition that could easily come off 2009’s Hazards Of Love. Read as a lament on infidelity, with lines like “as I lolled and lingered, the ring slipped my finger “, it could also be interpreted as shock that comes with falling too fast for an unexpected love. Slow and plodding for “Rusalka”, “Wild Rushes” takes the tempo up and finds Meloy singing his idiosyncratic sailor tales over layers of harps and bouzouki, where cymbal crashes and background harmonies carry us on a rich and textured journey.
Taking it way back to a sound realized on Her Majesty The Decemberists, the title track again strips Meloy down to little more than his guitar and voice, this time accompanied by a walking bass, sparse percussion, and backgrounds throughout by Conlee. Some atmospheric elements round out this song described by its writer as gender-neutral classic rock, a genuinely charming moment that ends an album built on sincerity and understanding.
Never say The Decemberists didn’t try; never claim their writer was content with a unique and respected sound, as this album will be your rebuke. While flawed from several attempts to experiment that might have served better as first drafts than final cuts, I’ll Be Your Man is no less a success for this band almost 20 years old; an attempt to modernize folk in the same vein as The Mountain Goats 2017 release Goths. Although not reaching the same level of consistency, containing low moments that project did not, it’s best moments are as thrilling as any from The Decemberists career. Fans will be divided, and rightly so, but it’s undeniable that at its core this album has a soul.