All of The Decemberists records we’ve visited thus far I absolutely love, but…“Picaresque” is probably The Decemberists first great album and starts a run of studio records of incredible quality that is ongoing today as we await their next release. Before we get to the music I must tell you about my copy which is quite the beauty. A 2015 Record Stay Day re-issue on luscious Red vinyl in a thick board gatefold sleeve with a 20+ page book of lyrics and pictures fixed inside. You get the whole album across 3 sides with side 4 being the “Picaresqueties EP” of outtakes and alternate versions (these post album outtakes EP’s have become a regular treat). There is a set of postcards depicting scenes from songs and a download voucher that gets you a complete live show…phew…
As for the music, well, two songs really stick out for me. Firstly “Eli The Barrow Boy” which upon first hearing I had to learn how to play, did so and have since done my own little bit in spreading the gospel of Decemberism at open mic nights here and there. It’s a doleful lament concerning Eli, his lost love and ultimate demise (he drowned, whether by accident or suicide isn’t specified but we’re at drowning again), it’s as Decemberists AF !
The other gem on “Picaresque” is the frankly preposterous “Mariners Revenge Song”. It’s a 9 minute mini opera-come-sea shanty telling of calamity, exploitation and revenge all ending in the belly of a giant whale ! It also contains one of my favourite Colin Meloy lyrics in “One night I overheard, The prior exchanging words, With a penitent whaler from the sea”, cracks me up every time. I was lucky enough to see this performed live a couple of years ago, including a huge inflatable blow-up whale being passed around the audience.
It doesn’t end there though, “The Sporting life” continues where “The Soldiering Life” left off but being concerned with athletic incompetence; “16 Military Wives” is a scathing rebuke of President Bush’s America (in as much as The Decemberists could ever be scathing); “On The Bus Mall” sees two young (rent ?) boys recounting their adventures; “The Bagmans Gambit” is a cinematic noir espionage story; opening song “The Infanta” is a tumbling and rolling stream of gorgeous words which seem to be about royalty of some sort while bringing visions of Blackadder along with it (it was also something of an influence on another songwriter I know quite well); “We Both Go Down Together” sees two lovers from oppposite sides of the tracks, whose parents “will never consent to this love”, commit suicide together (we are back there again), it’s a big fan favourite; “Engine Driver” always reminds me of Chigley (for those old enough to remember) and “Ivor The Engine”, it lies somewhere between both and The Who’s “A Quick One” without being either.
All these wonderful stories are dressed up with, of course, Meloy’s outlandish delving into the darkest, forgotten corners of the English language (dictionary moments (this could become a whole series of its own) include palanquin (a covered litter for one passenger) and tamarack (a North American larch) plus pachyderm where most of us would settle for elephant) and guitarist Chris Funk being set loose on his Hurdy Gurdy, bouzouki and dulcimer to frame these songs. You’re just gonna have to get used to the fact that I bloody love The Decemberists.
The Mariners Revenge Song - https://youtu.be/iPAr7kL-mmg