It started with the longest, happiest sigh. In early summer 2012, I returned to an empty apartment for the first time in two weeks, having had my dad and sister over for a vacation. The warm afterglow of fond memories together with the still peace of a house to myself made for an excellent mood. A friend of my sister’s had suggested The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife as good driving music during our road trip, and we’d added the title track to whosever iPod was in charge. She was right, it was an excellent open road song, and I made a note to check out more of their stuff when we came home. I’d heard of the band, as 2011’s The King is Dead was a favorite among some friends, though I hadn’t listened to it myself as that particular group of friends had a musical vocabulary completely foreign to me, and I felt it’d be easiest to remain ignorant rather than risk mispronouncing Bon Iver as “Sufjan Stevens.”
And so, alone in my apartment with no risk of getting anything wrong, on that hot June evening in 2012, I investigated their latest release, and discovered it was a live album from the King is Dead tour. I was already excited about this, as I generally find live albums more enjoyable than their studio predecessors, and it provided a good way into their whole catalog. We All Raise Our Voices to the Air made me an instant convert to The Decemberists, and to this day that album brings to mind dozens of sunny afternoons cycling along the Poudre river, as the horrifying story of The Rake’s Song stealthily invaded my brain through a catchy guitar riff.
2015’s “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” was the first album they’d released since I’d been a fan, and it was a vast array of styles and perspectives. Or, said more pessimistically, it was bloated and directionless. I think both perspectives are probably right in their way. But the title could just as easily be applied to their latest effort - 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl is a short, focused, often whimsical look at the sad state of things. Waiting three paragraphs to get to the record is perhaps why I haven’t written more reviews.
An acoustic guitar fades in to kick things off, as Colin Meloy pleads for something to go right in “Once in My Life.” It’s a risky ploy, singing about how difficult things are, as you release your eighth studio album and head out to play to thousands of fans every night as part of your band’s seventeenth year. But everyone has someone above them keeping them down, and in any case, problems start far further back than this record if all Decemberists’ lyrics must be explicitly autobiographical. A bright synth strides atop the guitars and drums to carry the vocal along, and the amount of melody and interest they manage to wring out of the piece is genuinely impressive, as the song has about six lines.
“Cutting Stone” is the album’s nadir. Some more synth runs initially threaten to take the song somewhere notable, but as the same two melodic ideas repeat themselves, three minutes twenty seconds seem to take a very long time. Sequencing as track two a song best suited to a Best Buy Exclusive bonus cd (even after they stopped selling cds) was an unfortunate choice, but the first notes of Severed immediately wrestle back the listener’s attention. Severed was the pre-album single, and it announced a bold new direction, all verbed out guitars and vocals held together with unexpected keyboards. It features Meloy at his most directly anti-Trump, as the President proclaims he’s “gonna leave you all severed.” As words put in the mouth of the commander-in-chief go, “don’t you get clever” surely ranks as some of the more poetic, apropos, and sad. Severed also represents the album at it’s most experimental, to allay the fears of fans of the band’s earlier work. No further pages of the Nord 2 manual are explored.
“That’s a very high note” is likely the next thought from the listener, as “Starwatcher” comes in with it’s military drums and warnings of evil ahead. It’s the first in a trio of songs direct from the center of The Decemberists’ wheelhouse. "Tripping Along" lets a lazily strummed clean guitar lull the listener into a state ripe for being jolted awake by the next track, in the same way the ticking countdown from “24” used to leave us vulnerable to the VERY LOUD FOX COMMERICALS. The energetic “Your Ghost” would be slightly more enjoyable had it not already been released as “The Infanta” several years ago, but adds an excellent instrumental break reminiscent of a harpsichord played through a 16 bit Nintendo.
So far, so… like the last one, but with keyboards. Side 1 has many of the strengths and weaknesses of “What a Terrible World…”, with it’s disorganized flashes of brilliance and tedium, with some interesting new instrumental flourishes.
Dropping the needle on side two is only recommended if you’re listening on vinyl (it will scratch your phone otherwise). The first nineteen seconds of strummed “A” chords and repetitions of the word “everything” are a big risk, all the listener’s “where are we going with this?” patience has nearly been exhausted before the tension breaks, and “Everything is Awful” kicks off an incredibly fine run of songs, stronger than anything in the first half. Whether the world needed a big nihilist singalong is a topic for another time, but this is the first of two on the album, and it’s catchy and playful. I defy anyone to keep from humming it the next time a day-ruining email hits their inbox. Chris Funk’s mad Wilco-esque guitar adds just the right amount of chaos as Meloy exhorts him to “kindly keep it down, I’m trying to get some sleep.”
"Sucker’s Prayer" is next, to check the “singalong suicide song” box. The story of a despondent man filling his pockets with rocks and wading into the river must surely pique the interest of mafia bosses who may find this easier than concrete shoes. For as much as they were trying to get away from the “piano in the verses, organ on the chorus” sound for this album, they made the right choice to play this one straight, with piano, organ, lush slide guitars, and beautiful harmonies. I could listen to that chorus for days, while my wondering where this song was when I was a lonely angsty teenager is answered by the realization that times haven’t much changed.
There haven’t been enough saxophones and childrens’ choirs yet, thought nobody. Both are put to excellent use in the next track, the musings of someone lying injured, dreaming of a message from a civil war general. The fight between irresistibly fun music and inexplicably heavy lyrics is a hallmark of Decemberists tracks, taken to the extreme by “We All Die Young.” And so we do. The band’s political leanings might tempt the listener to frame it as a protest against war or mass shootings or whatever else, but reminders of the inevitability of death are useful from any perspective.
Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes manages to harken back to the epic feel of The Island or The Hazards of Love without feeling derivative, a feat successfully attempted. The haunting piano of the first half gives way to a jaunty acoustic guitar just in time to stop the piece dragging, and some menacing organ and electric guitar riffs close out what should be a high point of their upcoming live shows.
And finally…the title track. “I’ll Be Your Girl” recalls the perfect simplicity of “June Hymn,” adding a slightly odd genderbending lyric. It’s pleasant enough, and rather than being baffled by a line like “I could be your man but I’ll be so much more… I’ll be your girl,” I just assume I’m not the intended audience. I hope that whoever is enjoys it.
New sounds, bold perspectives, and strong songs. Whatever the flaws of “I’ll Be Your Girl,” it leaves me enjoying my favorite tracks and excited for wherever they go next, which luckily for me is “on tour, quite near here.”