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2023/4 Albums Thing 360 - The Decemberists “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again”

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This piece is somewhat different to every other one I’ve written for this 2023/4 Albums Thing I committed myself to. Why ? I hear you ask…well here I am writing this on March 20th and the album isn’t due to be released until June 14th (the sharp eyed will note that’s today). Here I am writing stuff about a record I haven’t heard yet. But…there are a couple of reasons I decided to do this…firstly I’m a Decemberists obsessive (if you are not aware of this you maybe need to go back to May 2023 in this Blog and read through the stuff I’ve written about them previously) and the thought of a new album has me quite excited…secondly, and as is the way these days, The Decemberists “dropped” (I believe that is the current parlance) 2 tracks to digital streaming platforms as a tease, “Burial Ground” on February 6th and the 19 minute and 21 second epic “Joan In The Garden” on March 19th, the same day they announced the release of “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again”, their first album release since 2018.

I remember first hearing “Severed” and “Once In My Life” when they teased them from their previous album “I’ll Be Your Girl” and being floored at how good those songs were. So on February 6th as I prepared myself for my first listen to “Burial Ground” you may well appreciate that my breath was baited and my hooks were tentered…and oh what a disappointment…my first impression was this is a thinly disguised rewrite of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” and subsequent revisits haven’t convinced me otherwise. Oh well, I figured, everyone is allowed a stinker (Bowie and Tin Machine is a prime example) and we have a whole album to look forward to.

Fast forward to yesterday (that being the 19th March) and this album is announced. At the same time a second track is “dropped”, the aforementioned “Joan In The Garden”. Now The Decemberists aren’t scared about a long song, their debut album had one that ran to almost 10 minutes, there are a couple of 7 minuters on their 2nd album, one of almost 9 minutes on their 3rd and they breached 12 on the 4th, so this is not something I’m unused to from them, even with my notoriously short attention span. All these songs have one thing in common, they are very wordy stories, melodious in the extreme, musically multifaceted and they hold your attention. “Joan In The Garden” isn’t overly wordy and the story is hiding (from me at least). It is multifaceted, being constructed from 4 distinct sections BUT…part 1 is the sort of thing writer Colin Meloy probably produces without trying too hard, part 2 sounds like a middle 8 they couldn’t find a home for so let’s just chuck it into that long thing to pad it out. Then there is part 3, which begins at around 9 and a half minutes in and lasts for around 6 minutes, 6 minutes of tuneless, droning synthesizers that I can only liken to the sort of thing Prog fans enjoy getting stoned to in darkened rooms or outtakes from some great lost Krautrock epic featuring former members of Neu!, Cluster and Popol Vuh…and not the interesting former members. And if you think that’s painful the final section is what I can only describe as “The Decemberists try (shit) heavy metal”, it’s shockingly bad !

I’m now left having already spent the (not inconsiderable) £££ pre-ordering “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again” wondering whether The Decemberists bubble has finally burst ? Well I have another 3-ish months to wait to find out…

…or do I ? Here we are now on April 24th and a third track is released to streaming services, “All I Want Is You”. It’s a short ballad made up mainly of picked acoustic guitar and vocals with some muted brass instruments and harmony backing vocals, again the sort of thing that Colin Meloy knocks up without trying very hard. It’s nothing special. The Decemberists have a recent habit of releasing 10” EP’s shortly after an album release, made up of songs that were recorded for the album but didn’t make the final cut, songs that would once have ended up as B-sides. That’s where “All I Want Is You” (and “Burial Grounf” for that matter) sounds like it belongs, it is not doing anything to assuage me of the notion that this bubble has burst…

…this is getting a bit daft now isn’t it…16th May and yet another song, the 4th, is released on streaming services, meaning that just over 30% of the record is now available before release. This one is titled “Oh No!” and…well, thankfully it’s better, not a classic but better than any of the previous 3. It’s built around a vaguely Bossa Nova type of rhythm with horns.

Just over a year ago, in this very Blog while writing about The Decemberists last album release (“I’ll Be Your Girl”) I said “I’m very much looking forward to whatever comes next”…and now here is what comes next. The release time, June 14th but the record arrived 48 hours early and after spendinga couple of days with it…I find that it’s not all that great.

I really don’t like this current fad for dripping tracks out from a new album months before it’s released. I don’t use streaming services (well just YouTube if I need a quick listen to something I don’t know) primarily because they sound rubbish. Example; when I first played this album track 1 side 1, “Burial Ground” SOUNDED great, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s a half-arsed rewrite of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B”, it just sounded better than it did on YouTube.

I went and read some online reviews to see what the world was thinking. I was shocked to see descriptions like “their best album”, “a triumph” and “a return to form” (although that last one was by a guy who described previous album “I’ll Be Your Girl” as a disappointment so he’s obviously a cloth eared no mark) which got me to thinking “is it me”. Well no it’s not…if you’ve read anything  here you’ll know how highly I value The Decemberists but this album, outside of Colin Meloy’ voice, could be almost anybody. The things I love about The Decemberists aren’t here. The humour is missing, the soaring, intricate melodies are missing, the ridiculous dictionary moments are missing, it’s all very dour and ordinary and The Decemberists have never been ordinary to me.

On the bright side penultimate track “Never Satisfied” is pretty good and might have had a shot at appearing on a Decemberists album in the past. Having said that it’s not hard to stand out among this meagre company. 

I’ll persevere with it, of course I will, but I guess this qualifies as the first bad write up on this blog.

Never Satisfied - https://youtu.be/Ah0KYze_y-c?si=tFZhjlhTa-Upsaqi

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