Release Date: Mar 16, 2018
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
If every band's journey is a novel, I'll Be Your Girl is certainly The Decemberists's redemptive chapter. After nearly 13 years of continual excellence, 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was everything that their previous records had keenly avoided - plodding, cliché-driven, lacking in any true wit or the caustic folk-tales that had propelled the band to attention and kept them there. Gone were the absurdities, the sprawling, magnificent fairy-stories, the cerebral whirrings and clicks of a band who were bold enough to bring David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest into a pop video.
Ever since they emerged onto the national music scene in 2002, The Decemberists discography has swung back and forth like a pendulum between the band's core proficiency (brainy, tuneful folk songs) and its farther ranging interests. Albums like 2002's Castaways and Cutouts and 2011's The King is Dead sit on one side, packed with beautiful acoustic guitars and Colin Meloy's distinctive combo of melody, wordplay and tone. On the other side sit releases like 2004's The Tain EP (a labyrinthine, 18-minute epic tale), 2009's The Hazards of Love (a foray into heavy prog-rock) and now, the band's newest album, I'll Be Your Girl, which supplements The Decemberists' sound with dusky, synth-colored vibes.
The Decemberists' allure has always been their ability to sweep the listener away from the doldrums of everyday life into an enchanting universe where old-world characters merged with new-world musical motifs. But you may have noticed this recipe wearing a bit thin as the last two albums saw the band plodding through well-worn conventions and the imaginative songwriting that was their calling card showed a moderate decline. It seems as though The Decemberists may have felt this way as well.
The shorthand description of I'll Be Your Girl, the Decemberists' eighth album, is that it's the record where the band decide to ditch the past and engage with the modern world, layering their folk-rock with synthesizers and other contemporary accouterments. The intentional irony is, that this modern sound -- shepherded by producer John Congleton, best-known for helming acclaimed albums by St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and Future Islands -- is predicated on the New Wave of the '70s and '80s, a sound that would seem like a throwback for nearly any other group, but in the hands of the Decemberists, such swaths of synths provide a vibrant, colorful jolt.
To download, click "Share" and right-click the download icon | iTunes | Podchaser The Lowdown: The Decemberists are taking a step out of their comfort zone with I'll Be Your Girl, the band's eighth full-length studio album, and the results are occasionally thrilling but more often either overdone or underworked. The Good: The single "Severed" at first sounds a little like Colin Meloy being held at gunpoint and forced to front a new wave band. But the combination of his trembling, earthy voice and the dark, pulsing synth is actually unexpected and exciting.
Late on I'll Be Your Girl, there's "Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes," a narrative suite based on an old Slavic parable about a mermaid who seduces men only to trick them into drowning. Over eight minutes brimming with dramatic tension and florid prose, Colin Meloy profiles two victims, one a willing sacrifice aroused by his fate, the other naïve and unsuspecting. "Your brow tressed in flowers, pale in a liminal moon," he sings, setting up each death with the patience of a master storyteller, relishing the suspense until the track finally erupts into fits of grandiose, polyphonic folk.
For the better part of this decade, The Decemberists have been 'Schrödinger's indie band': signed to a major label (Capitol) and having a number one charting album (2011's The King is Dead), but never having a crossover hit along the lines of 'Float On' or 'Kids' to really catch fire in mainstream circles (if only for a couple years). At this point, they're an institution, further emphasized by appearing on network sitcoms like The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation as a de facto "cool indie band." Despite their bookish/cutesy tendencies falling out of vogue in recent years, Colin Meloy's band has carried on. Too weird for the normies and too normie for the weirdos didn't lead to their collapse.
The Decemberists do a very particular thing - darkly ornate, literary-minded, self-consciously verbose Anglophile prog-folk-rock - exceedingly well, so well that you can't blame 'em for wanting to do something else. They do just that on I'll Be Your Girl, at least in parts, the upshot being, well, a re-affirmation of that particular thing they do exceedingly well. In a robust artisanal pop marketplace (the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, the Head and the Heart, etc.) where bands might look to U2 or Coldplay as pop-crossover models, our gang stick closer to what used to be called "the left of the dial," when there was a dial.
Once In My Life is the first track on The Decemberists‘ new album and it exemplifies why the new synth-heavy sound they’ve adopted isn’t entirely successful. It starts unsurprisingly enough, with jangling guitar and Colin Meloy’s quavering vocals. “Oh for once in my, oh for once in my life / Could just something go, could just something go right,” he sings.
Whether as a reaction to the popular perception that they're a bunch of pretentious hipsters, or simply to stave off middle-aged malaise, the Decemberists's I'll Be Your Girl finds the band feeling unusually puckish. This might have been a refreshing development if virtually all of the creative choices here weren't so colossally miscalculated. Aiming for playful rebirth, the Decemberists instead land on cloying kitsch.