Their most recent album released in released in 2018 sees something of a departure from the tried and trusted Decemberists sound.
But before we get to that let me gush about the first song. When a band you really like releases a new album there is always the nagging thought of “what if they’ve lost it” going on in the back of your mind. So track one, side one is always important, it’s a place to make a statement about what you’re about. Bowie’s “Speed Of Life”, The Clash’s “London Calling”, Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic”, Iggy’s “Search & Destroy”, they’re all track one, side one, they all tell you something about what is to come. With “Once In My Life” The Decemberists allay any fears I might have had. It fades in very slowly revealing a wonderful acoustic guitar sound and continues with, unusually for Colin Meloy, very few lyrics, a driving chorused bass line (not unlike something the Cocteau Twins might conjure) and sits inside a keening melody that sets a bar for “I’ll Be Your Girl”.
From there we take something of a turn down a road less travelled especially by our Prog-Folk heroes here. A number of the songs now take on an influence from 80’s synth-pop (think more New Order and Depeche Mode and less Erasure OK ?) and even Glam Rock ! Production duties on this album were passed to John Congleton (St Vincent, Lana del Rey) who definitely accentuated Jennie Conlee’s synthesizers.
Second song up “Cutting Stone” puts all these new sounds together. The subject is as folky as it gets, the protagonist owns a stone that will cut anything, even itself, and he tells us about its exploits. This is set against that chorused bass again, synthesisers and sequencers. The other songs that demonstrate these 80’s influences most overtly are “Severed” and “Your Ghost” which continue in a similar vein.
“Everything Is Awful” introduces us to side 2 and ABBA would have been proud of this vocal arrangement. It’s a pretty lightweight children’s song about serious matters with added Punk rock guitars, singalong bits and a sly wink. “We All Die Young” comes on all Glitter Band glam with thumping drums, Status Quo guitars and childrens backing vocals. “Suckers Prayer” is a slice of prime Americana and there are still the tried and trusted folk influences particularly on “Tripping Along”.
“I’ll Be Your Girl” comes to an end on “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes,” (yes I know there’s another song after it but humour me) an 8 minute song suite based on a Slavic legend of a Mermaid who entices men into a seductive trap only to trick them into drowning. Hang on didn’t you say this album was their synth-pop record and now we’re onto mythic mermaids and drowning, we’ve been here before haven’t we ? Well yes and as much as I have enjoyed the last three albums and their more Americana rooted sound it’s great to again reach for the dictionary for liminal (a transitional stage of a process) and hear that folk-Prog again. It seems a leopard never truly changes its spots.
Colin Meloy has said that the album adresses the sense of despair and absurdity many in America were feeling after the 2016 election (you know, the one won by the clown with the fake tan and tiny hands) and some of the jaunty tunes in here do come tied to some angsty lyrics. In contemporary reviews “I’ll Be Your Girl” was criticised for being less focussed than earlier albums. At times it felt like there was a line from the reviewers that they didn’t like the change in style and the band should get back to their earlier Folk-Prog incarnation. But if a band doesn’t evolve it gets boring, I’m sure if they’d made 3 more albums in their earlier style the reviewers would be accusing them of just that, and as songwriters mature and their lives change then it’s inevitable the things they write about will mature and change. It’s by no measure their best album but it really doesn’t deserve the criticism’s it gathered at the time. I’m very much looking forward to whatever comes next.
Once In My Life - https://youtu.be/bHFbaF9_kpI