Album Review:The Decemberists – Picaresque


We’ve all been there a thousand times. One of your favorite bands readies a new album, and that fear grows inside your stomach. Will it suck? Will there be a song so awesome that it breaks into the mainstream? Will it suck? That’s how I felt last year when I heard that The Decemberists were recording their newest album Picaresque with Chris Walla, of Death Cab fame, as the producer.

Well, let me cut to the chase and say that after picking this album up last Tuesday, all my fears were put to rest. This album fits in perfectly with Her Majesty and Castaways and Cutouts. I know it’s been said before, but each song on this record feels like a piece of a much larger musical. Listen to The Infanta and tell me that you can’t see it being performed on Broadway in front of a packed house. It’s so powerful that it seems to beg for a huge audience to soak in the extent of its meaning.

After talking to some people from the Decemberists’ message board, I have decided that my opinions on this album aren’t quite the norm. For instance, take The Mariner’s Revenge Song. When I first heard the album, this quickly caught my ear. It’s an 8 minute epic told in the stomach of a whale about how two men’s lives have been connected. It’s so simple that it’s catchy, but so poetic that it’s beautiful. Not all fans seem to agree though. But that’s fine. This album is so big that it leaves plenty of room to love or loathe a song. There are plenty more from which to pick.

The new single, Sixteen Military Wives, has caused quite a stir in the Decemberists’ community as well. Some fans feel that the lyrics are a cop-out and are a bit too simple and direct. Others think that the catchy tune is just what the Decemberists need to gain the attention of the major record labels. But this isn’t about them. This is about the album itself. Sometimes you have to step back from your preconceived ideas about what your favorite bands should sound like. For instance, most fans expect The Decemberists to write songs about pirates and hookers from the 19th century. But here’s a perfectly wonderful song about something that can be interpreted as contemporary and tons of people get all fussy. Bands don’t have to write songs in the same style all the time. If Colin wants to speed up the tempo and not mention sailors, that’s fine by me. It worked perfectly well in July, July!

I know I’ve made it sound like this album will solve world hunger, but it’s not quite that perfect. There are a few tracks that seem…. boring. I’m sure I’ll catch a lot of flack for this, but The Bagman’s Gambit ruins the flow of the album. I know that this is a beautifully sung track and the instrumentation is pretty decent. It’s just not for me.

However, the biggest bit of advice that I can give to you, as a music fan, is to listen to this album once. Then, put it down and go do something for a little while. Then, pick it up later. It’s something weird, but once you’ve heard the songs once, they just get better. After having repeated this process for two days, I can tell you that it doesn’t seem to end.

Rating: A

Sixteen Military Wives
The Engine Driver

Buy Picaresque

pse: I’d love to tell you that the Decemberists news is over for a while, but I know for a fact that I’ll be doing at least one more piece in the next week…sorry ;)

3 thoughts on “Album Review:The Decemberists – Picaresque”

  1. I will definitely agree with the once-thru, put-down, come-back on this one. I did that (because, of course, I didn’t like the first runthru but didn’t want to give up on my $14 that easily), and the second runthru was amazing. I only know some of the song titles, but I’ll go ahead and say that “The Sporting Life,” “Sixteen Military Wives,” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” stick out in my head right now as I think back. I’ll admit this is my first Decemberists album and that I’m not a deep fan like some folks, but I don’t know why they’d have a problem with “Sixteen Military Wives.” It’s catchy, it makes some sense, and what’s wrong with that? It still has the Decemberists feel. I like it, what can I say. Plus the video is quite funny. Anyways, yeah, I agree that this album is quite good. More people need to get to know the Decemberists.

  2. I’m generally in agreement; this is a very good album, up to the standards of the first two, and surpassing them in some ways. At the very least, the first 6 songs are undeniably strong (sorry, I like “The Bagman’s Gambit”), and those 6 don’t even include the two best songs- “The Engine Driver” and especially “On the Bus Mall.” I don’t care too much for “Sixteen Military Wives”; it’s catchy but nothing more, and really there are much better melodies here. “The Mariner’s Song” is also a bit disappointing; not nearly as interesting as their past epics, and a little too melodramatic for my tastes. It’d be a fun little live number (like “Chimbley Sweep”) but it’s not much on record. Overall, though, this is really good stuff, and isn’t as overstated and dramatic as Her Majesty, which I thought was a weakpoint for that album.

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